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Creating potential for connection is one of the most essential aspects of the writer’s job. Whether you’re writing a hero, a villain, or a character somewhere in between, there should be at least one element that allows the reader to connect with that character.
Sometimes, this comes easily. Your characters are likeable, and you don’t have to work at putting a deeply human persona on the page. Other times, you may find yourself at a loss to point to something – anything – that makes them relatable. There are two elements that are so universal to the human experience that you can include them in any character in order to help your reader connect with them.
So, what are these two magical elements? You probably guessed by the title. But in case they slipped by you, we’re talking about shame and vulnerability.
What’s the problem?
First off, why do main characters need to be relatable anyway? Because they carry the weight of the story, they drive the plot and character arcs, and they’re usually most involved in developing the themes of the book. If there’s literally nothing endearing about these characters, it’s incredibly hard for readers to stay invested in the story.
I’m not saying your reader won’t make it to the last page or that they’ll leave a bad review of the book. It’s possible they’ll even enjoy the book, but they’ll struggle to relate to your characters. That’s a central piece of the reading experience you’re cutting out, and you can avoid doing so by simply focusing on the ways that shame and vulnerability come into play for your character as part of their human experience.
How do shame and vulnerability solve it?
These two elements are the little cracks in the façade that let the reader in. A character without any soft places can repel readers and come across as being unrealistic. But if they’ll let us inside, let us see their humanity, even the darkest character is one we can connect to, feel something for, and maybe even grow to love – or at least understand.
I want to introduce you to Elizabeth Hand’s antihero, Cass Neary, first seen in Generation Loss. Hand’s portrayal of this jaded has-been is so skillful that you can’t look away, though Cass plunges headlong into the dark side every chance she gets.
Cass Neary made a name for herself as a young photographer in the seventies. She didn’t shy away from the seedy underbelly of New York’s punk scene; in fact, it’s where she felt most alive. Her one-hit wonder was a book of photographs called Dead Girls exposing the darker side of sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll… and death.
I can smell damage; it radiates from some people like a pheromone. Those are the ones I photograph. I can tell where they’ve been, what’s destroyed them, even after they’re dead… It shows up in pictures, if you know how to catch the light.
Cass’ story often feels like a long chain of self-sabotage. She can’t hold down a job or a relationship for very long; she relies on drugs and alcohol to get through the day; she’s burned all her bridges. In the same way she turns her camera on the dark, seedy, and sinister, Cass turns an unflinching eye on her own brokenness: she’s chronically hurting herself and everyone in her path. She admits at one point, “Some people make their own bad luck. Others, I help them out.”
The one person it seems she lets inside, though, is the reader. She doesn’t keep us at arm’s length, and that’s what makes this story work. Cass doesn’t psychoanalyze or obsess about her habits. She just tells us what happened and lets us put the pieces together. In a moment of particular vulnerability, she confides about an attack that still haunts her:
It’s like having a razor blade clamped between your teeth: you move your mouth too much, your tongue, you smile or talk or kiss someone, you cut yourself open. You could drown if you swallowed that much blood. You could fucking bleed to death.
As we follow Cass, she doesn’t bother to hide the way she self-medicates every few hours with a beer, a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of Jack Daniels, or a stolen handful of Percocet. She talks a lot about photography and about Aphrodite’s brilliant work. She sometimes admits to wishing she had her camera on hand, but you start to wonder why she doesn’t do something about it. If she loves the work so much, why not pick it up again? But just when you chalk it up to self-pity, Cass lets down her guard. Taking photographs of Aphrodite’s most famous prints, she explains:
The sound of the shutter release was like a moth beating against glass. I took a dozen pictures then slid down to the floor. I began to cry.
Those photos… They were so fucking amazing… No matter what I did, I would never be able to produce something that good. I would never make something great. Even at my best, for fifteen seconds thirty years ago, I wasn’t capable of it.
And just like that, we get a peek behind that hard exterior, to the source of what’s eating at Cass Neary. Does your heart soften toward her? Mine did.
In Cass Neary, the reader sees a broken soul resigned to her fate, unapologetic about perpetuating her own downward spiral. But they stick with her because she lets them in; she doesn’t push them away with pride or falsehood or bravado. By putting Cass’ shame and vulnerability on the page, Elizabeth Hand manages to make this jagged woman a sympathetic character.
Fear, failure, or regret. When we talk about vulnerability, we mean those chinks in the armor. Let readers see those moments of fear, failure, or regret that plague your character – even if he or she hides it from the rest of the world. Those are three powerful emotions that resonate with every reader.
Exposure. Shame takes these emotions one step further by exposing them to others. When your character’s deeds are brought to light in big and small ways, they might seem unfazed on the surface, but let readers see and feel the shame brewing beneath. This creates a potential for compassion or sympathy – even empathy.
Betrayal, attack, abuse. Even the toughest person isn’t immune to betrayal, attack, or abuse. In fact, trauma can be a major source of a character’s negative behaviors and harsh characteristics. Readers can relate to suffering and its corrosive effects.
Keeping it real
Harsh characters tell some of the most memorable stories. So, go for it. Don’t hold back; don’t be afraid to write dark characters. Just be sure to give them a few cracks to let the reader in. Let shame and vulnerability be your guide. Wherever there’s fear, failure, regret, exposure, disappointment, betrayal, or trauma, let your reader see and feel what your character sees and feels. Don’t hold them at arm’s length, and your honesty will be rewarded with their loyalty.
You’ve done everything you can with a piece, but now you’re running up against your biases. You need fresh eyes, professional insight, and a sustained dialogue to show you new paths. You need all that, but you’re still hesitating to involve an editor. Why?
Probably because you’re not sure what working with an editor is like. Will they understand your work? Will they try and take control of the project? Can they be trusted to see what you’ve written? Well, it depends on the editor, but here, at least, is the primer you need to understand what it means to work with an editor.
Types of editor
Different editors work in different ways, and often the experience you have will be defined by what you hire an editor to do. One thing I won’t be covering in this article is working with an editor at a publishing house – they’re more enmeshed in an existing structure and company, and that can mean a radically different philosophy. It’s also unlikely that you’re dithering over whether to work with them, as they’ll be introduced as part of the larger publishing process. Dedicated editors, however, come in a few flavors.
Generally, the big difference is between content and form. A developmental editor will help you work an idea into a story, advising on content as it’s created, while a copy editor will help correct objective errors in the form of the story – things like grammar and punctuation that have ‘right’ answers. In the middle, there’s a grey area, what we at Standout Books call a comprehensive edit, which involves working on the phrasing and presentation of an existing story. Here, an editor might help you with issues like varying your sentence structure or ensuring all your characters don’t speak in the same voice.
Figuring out what you need an editor to do is key to finding the right editor, but a business that provides a dedicated editing service should also be able to talk to you and recommend the ideal edit for your needs. They’re the experts in the field, so don’t be put off by not knowing exactly what you want – a good editor knows the questions they need to ask to figure out the right service.
One of the things writers tend to worry about when working with an editor is what tone their relationship will take. Is an editor going to grab the wheel and insist on changes the author doesn’t want? Well, they shouldn’t, and that’s because of editorial philosophy.
This is what makes an editor hired by an author so different from an editor attached to a publishing house. The latter works for the publisher, but the former works for the author, and they work according to a hierarchy of priorities.
When hired by a writer, it’s an editor’s job to help them attain their goal. That goal is generally to write the best form of a book, and that best form is generally understood as the form that does the most for the reader. This is the hierarchy behind editorial philosophy, and it’s what stops any decent editor from getting bossy. We’re here to serve the author, first and foremost, and offer advice on how best to attain their goals. Those goals are what defines the service.
To that end, a good editor will begin by ascertaining what your goal is with any given project. Who you’re writing for, what emotional journey you’re trying to send them on, what your personal goals are for a project. If they don’t do that, they’re incapable of doing anything else, because there’s no perfect version of a text, just the ideal version of the author’s vision.
It’s this philosophy more than anything else that prevents an editor from being a co-writer. A co-writer follows, to some extent, their own whims; they’re trying to create the version of a project that meets their own goals. An editor, meanwhile, is there to suggest how a project can meet the goals of its author.
Subjective and objective feedback
Because an editor is serving the author’s goal, the vast majority of their feedback will come in the form of suggestions. For subjective issues like phrasing or story content, a good editor will make a clear recommendation that includes their reasoning. The idea here is that the editor is providing potential changes – tools you can choose to either utilize or ignore – rather than saying how things should be.
Editor feedback isn’t just suggestion in practical terms, but also in spirit. Good editors shouldn’t be precious about their recommendations, because it’s not their job to finish or change the book, but to provide you with options and insight. If their recommendations are thorough, their job is effectively done. They should, of course, be happy to discuss their reasoning with you, but good editors are like greengrocers; it’s their job to give you the best fruit available, and if you ask their advice they can certainly recommend what to do with it, but it’s none of their business once it’s in your possession. It’s a deeply unprofessional greengrocer who insists you must use their apples in a pie. After all, they’re your apples.
Generally, editors will make it practical for you to identify their advice. If they’re rewording sentences or changing around the order of a story, they’ll track those changes in some way. Not only does this show what’s been done, but it allows for suggested changes to be accepted, rejected, or adapted by the author they’re actually for. Your book shouldn’t come back to you unrecognizable – it should always be clear what an editor has done, specifically because their recommendations are there for you to apply as you see fit.
Similarly, if an editor provides advice and you decide not to take it, there’ll be no bad blood. Again, they’re there to give you insight and options, not to change your work to their liking. Sometimes, especially in a copy edit, an editor’s feedback may look like correction. Editors work from incredibly detailed guides to grammar and style, and these provide objective, consistent answers to many technical issues that appear in the majority of writing. Even here, however, these alterations are suggestions. They’ll be as clearly marked out as everything else, and if you decide you want to deviate from the objective rules of grammar, your editor will let you know how you’re doing so, and why they’d recommend you don’t, but they’re not there to stop you.
If the relationship between an editor and an author turns antagonistic, something has gone badly wrong, because an editor’s mission is to help the author find the ideal form of the book they want to write.
We’ve said before that, even if you’re going to hire an editor, it’s still important to edit your own work. This is because an editor can only do so much with any given draft. It’s not that there’s only so much time that can be dedicated to a single edit (although that’s true too), it’s that an editor can only deviate so much from the draft in front of them. Few writers want their work totally rewritten, which means that suggestions about fine details often have to fall by the wayside if there are glaring issues to fix. The latter problem is more urgent, and that big change creates a new version that needs to return to the author.
It doesn’t, for example, make sense to vary the way characters speak if there’s a huge plot hole that means they may need to be having entirely different conversations. First, a good editor suggests ways to fix the plot hole, and that’s something that the author needs to decide on before the editor can set to work suggesting improvements for the resulting character interactions. Editors make things better, but there’s no perfect version of a book, so progress is defined by where the manuscript begins.
It’s like sending your dog to the world’s greatest trainer – they could feasibly teach it to do anything, but with limited time and resources, they’re going to teach it to ‘sit’, because that’s what it most needs to learn. It’s when you’ve taught your dog to sit, lie down, and beg that the trainer can move onto teaching it to do a backflip. Or, at least, the trainer can teach it all of the above, but it’ll take far more time and resources.
Generally, editing is more effective when it’s divorced from writing. This is the case when editing your own work, but it’s also usually the case when working with an editor. Trying to improve and create simultaneously gives neither enough room to breathe, and they end up tripping over each other. The need to keep creating means that good advice quickly stops being applicable, while the desire to improve means that scenes are endlessly reworked rather than becoming part of a developing whole.
For this reason, editors will usually take a piece and perform their edit over an appropriate period of time, providing the author with an edited document that includes an exhaustive set of suggestions and the reasoning behind them. The author can then study those suggestions, apply them at their discretion, and either return to the editor for further feedback or else keep on creating before contacting them again.
This methodology generally means that working with an editor is more a series of spaced-out meetings than a constant back-and-forth. Again, this comes back to the philosophy of editing; in order for the editor to help you create your ideal version of a project, you both need to understand what that is, and that insight can take time to develop (and can even change as a project continues). If your editor is in constant contact, it’s easy to start treating the book as if it has an innate best form. It doesn’t, it has the form you want for it, and back-and-forth feedback helps keep that at the forefront of the relationship.
Of course, you may disagree, you may want a more immediate relationship with your editor, and many editors will be happy to accommodate you. After all, they’re there to help you out.
Above all, what an editor owes a writer is transparency. What they intend to do with a piece should be clear from the outset, as should the protections available to the author. As a rule, communication between editors and authors is private, including all files sent back and forth. Even within an editing firm, details are only shared for purposes of the best possible editorial service. Authors need to know who’s seen their work, and editors take privacy very seriously.
Likewise, the way you interact with your editor, and the way they present their advice, is something to discuss upfront before your service begins. While editors aren’t there to fight the author on anything, some writers actually prefer this approach, and they can get it if they stipulate that that’s what they’re after. At the end of the day, an editor’s pride lies in applying their professional insight and acumen to discovering the most effective ways to meet a client’s goals. If that means a unique approach, many are happy to accommodate, and all should be honest about what they can offer. If you want an editor who’ll fight you to the mat for the version they think is best, be sure to make that clear. Either they’ll be willing to adopt that style to help you or they’ll let you know that it’s not the way they work, and you can find someone who suits you better.
Left to their own devices, however, most editors prefer the greengrocer approach. They offer you their advice, and what you do with it is entirely your own business. That doesn’t mean they’ll give up on you if you reject their advice, but that they’ll adjust to giving the new best advice based on the parameters your decisions have set. Perhaps, here, a financial advisor is a better metaphor; they can tell you where best to invest your money but, if you’re absolutely set on investing in emu farms, they’ll switch to finding you the most profitable emu farms. ‘Best’ is a relative term, and it means that whatever your personal rules and goals, there’s always something an editor can do for you.
If your worry is an editor swooping in like your old English teacher and correcting everything with a red pen, rest easy. We’re here to help, and our definition of success is the version of the book that meets your goals. Every suggestion should be clear, the reasoning behind it laid out for your inspection, but ultimately, it’s your choice how to proceed.
Melodrama tends to get a bad rep these days, and not without good reason. Certainly, melodrama – that is, sensational drama; exaggerated, flat characters; farcically exciting events; and extreme responses and actions – can often come at the expense of those other aspects of fiction that make your book worth reading: deep characters, subtext, complex plotlines, etc. But it doesn’t have to and, even if it does, melodrama can work its own unique magic, making it a style worth paying attention to.
Melodrama can, in addition to its traditional use (to elicit strong emotions from the viewer/reader), be used to develop characters, to mark tonal shifts, and even to subtly manipulate readers into adopting particular attitudes or positions. But how to integrate this divisive and often overpowered style in your own writing? Well, melodrama is incredibly easy to overdo, so it’s going to require a steady hand. Let’s take a look.
Fear not the ridiculous
It’s tempting to tiptoe around melodrama. After all, the term used pejoratively refers to ham-fisted and desperate attempts to make your reader feel something despite their better judgement. Done blindly, this is definitely a bad thing – no-one wants to have an emotional climax forced down their throat, violins and all, especially when the writing hasn’t been good enough for you to truly care about what’s going on.
However, writers don’t always want the reader to feel what their characters are feeling in-text. Indeed, melodrama can be used with a level of self-awareness that, with nuance, can be used to expose a particular scenario or character as ridiculous. You see this mechanism put to use in books like Pretty Little Liars, where characters skip over every reasonable response to a given threat (for example, calling the police, talking to someone) and go straight to murder schemes and faking their own deaths.
This kind of meta-melodrama manipulates the reader into responding to characters and situations in a certain way. Essentially, the reader is able to enjoy the spectacle of the characters’ over-the-top emotion without having to empathize. This can be used to easily establish allegory or symbolism, create distance from a character, and shift expectations about tone.
Of course, if you want to go full melodrama to hike up the excitement, you’ll want to close the gap between the reader and the amplified emotion on display. In this case, it’s important to establish the melodrama as consistent with your book’s internal logic.
This means that if you intend to use melodrama, you’ve got to open with melodrama. Introduce the melodramatic premise of your story early on and with minimal fuss – if you treat it as if it’s normal, readers will too. Don’t dwell on how ridiculous something sounds or over-explain – just make it clear early on that said ridiculousness is to be expected within the parameters of your book’s internal logic.
You see this in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. Now, this isn’t normally a series I sing the praises of, but Meyer does well not to dwell on how weird it is that there are teenage vampires in this small American town and that obviously said teenage vampire starts a relationship with a moody teenager. It’s all just waved through as if it’s all normal, making it easy for the reader to suspend their incredulity and enjoy the story.
With this in mind, it’s often a good idea to avoid too much early exposition. Ridiculous and improbable information is easier to swallow if its transferred through action or dialogue – this way, readers are able to see how such a ridiculous world operates: how the characters who live within it act and respond to one another, how the ridiculous dynamics affect the general lives of the characters, and how a world without nuance bounces between extremes.
In his Jeeves and Wooster stories, P.G. Wodehouse relates the dramas of a man so privileged that the reader might have found it hard to care if not for the writer’s skill. Not only are his problems – such as over-eager women looking for marriage and fortunes hinging on minor social favors – the kind many would love to have, but Wooster treats them as the end of the world. This is a comedy though; Wodehouse doesn’t need the reader to truly care if Wooster comes out on top, he just needs his protagonist’s flapping to be enough that, when Jeeves steps in and resolves every issue in one fell swoop, it’s impressive. Wooster’s tendency toward melodrama also provides a comparison for the actual problems that hang around his own experiences – matters of true love and lifelong happiness – focusing and encouraging the reader’s investment in other characters. Crucially, by making Wooster the main character and relegating the real drama to secondary characters, Wodehouse makes melodrama the norm. When real problems arise, they stand out as emergencies against the established silliness.
Melodrama ignores the ordinary and goes straight for the unlikely and the extreme, meaning that it can be jarring for readers expecting mimesis in storytelling. As such, you’ve got to work to make it all seem as normal as possible within the context of the story.
Temper the ridiculousness
All that said, it’s also important not to go too far. As I mentioned, melodrama is rather out of fashion, and too much tends to put off readers. After all, the works associated with melodrama aren’t quite renowned for their artistry: in addition to the Twilight series, there are children’s cartoons, pantomime, soap operas, daytime television, and cloyingly sugary romances. Nothing you’d necessarily want to emulate.
As such, it’s often necessary to temper the ridiculousness with something readers can anchor themselves to. This doesn’t mean easing your readers in – I’ve mentioned already that it’s important to start as you mean to go on – instead, it could be as simple as having your protagonist or narrator be reliable, trustworthy, and sensible. This way, the reader has a sane guide through a ridiculous world.
But what if you want your narrator to engage in some melodrama? Well, there are other methods to make sure you’re keeping at least one of your story’s feet rooted on firm ground; for example, you could surround the extraordinary elements of your story with descriptions of the mundane or everyday – maybe, for example, your lovers are screaming oaths at one another and falling over backwards in their fits of passion. Rather than focusing purely on this over-the-top scene, you could surround the drama with mundane details about the room’s furnishings, about the weather, or about the style of the crockery – anything to root the scene in something familiar.
This ‘something’ can be literal, tonal, or even character-based. In William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, the lovers meet on a farm (surrounded by dung and disobedient animals), reconnect under the severe threat of death (something the reader is meant to perceive as true jeopardy), and their story is told through a framing device that ties them to a realer, more cynical narrator character.
I mentioned before the importance of establishing an internal logic. This means that there should be a consistent barometer within the confines of your story for what is considered normal/acceptable and what is considered unusual/bizarre. In order to ensure that your melodramatic scenes hit hard, it’s important to not let the improbable or the obscene become too commonplace. You have to balance the magic with the real. After all, the reader needs to be able to understand the rules of your world in order to respond emotionally to it, and a story in which literally anything can occur is a story that doesn’t make sense.
Don’t roll your eyes
If you’re going to do melodrama, do it – don’t hold it at arm’s length. Too many writers seem to want to wink knowingly at their readers as if to say, ‘Don’t worry, I know I’m writing something silly, I don’t actually think this is good.’ You see this pop up in cinema over and over again, and it’s one of the reasons why the John Wick series of films is much better example of how to successfully do melodramatic action than Marvel’s The Avengers series.
If you’ve not seen John Wick, know that it’s the best modern cinematic example of melodrama done well I can think of. It’s a love letter to action films, and knowingly plays with all the genre’s conventions without ever winking knowingly at the audience. The premise is that John Wick, an ex-hitman, goes on a killing spree after Russian mobsters murder his loyal dog. If that’s not an extreme response, I don’t know what is.
In John Wick Chapter 2, there’s an incredible scene where John and a bounty hunter hired to kill him are trying to fast-walk through a subway station, subtly taking pot-shots at each other from across the crowded passage, each hiding his gun in his jacket and trying to look nonchalant as people barge by in typical commuter fashion. It’s a ridiculous and entirely straight-faced scene, and it works brilliantly.
In contrast, in The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Hawkeye takes a time-out from fighting the apocalyptic battle at the film’s climax to basically wink at the camera and say “Look, the city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots, and I have a bow and arrow!” It’s tonally bizarre and serves only to remind the audience that what they’re watching is ridiculous; and not only that, but it’s contrived, false, and formulaic. One writer’s need to rise above his material threatened to derail the movie’s climactic scene. Don’t fall into the same trap!
Despite its trashy reputation, melodrama can help make an otherwise flat narrative joyful and engaging. Embracing genre conventions and clichés with sincerity can actually make for an earnest and unpretentious read, and even archetypal characters can play off of one another in ways that allow for the foregrounding of simple allegories and symbols.
The trick is to know what you’re playing with. Be confident in your use of melodrama – it needs a firm hand, and it can easily take over a text or run rampant until all you’re left with is a nonsensical mess. Keep it focused, keep it contained, and know what you’re doing. Temper anything too ridiculous and try to ensure that all your crazy happenings have root causes that are comprehensible to your readers. In short, the world should be recognizable; it’s how your characters respond to that world that should be overly dramatic. We should still be able to understand the causal relationships at play.
Melodrama is a lot of fun to play around with, and there are examples of it everywhere, particularly in early cinema, in YA and romance fiction, and in 19th-century English literature. Strange and clever meta-melodramas have become very popular on Netflix in the last few years (such as Pretty Little Liars, a show adapted from the aforementioned book series, and the bizarre Toast of London), and there’s been plenty of non-fiction written on the subject too. In short: there’s plenty to get stuck into. Enjoy!
Most of us are familiar with the idea that characters need to be multidimensional to be believable. E.M. Forster gave us terms for this discussion, ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters, but the term ‘well-rounded’ predates Forster by at least a century, and the discussion of emotional complexity is as old as history. People simply aren’t simple, and flat characters have way less appeal than complex ones.
This multidimensionality includes the multiple layers of often-conflicting emotions that people experience due to our cognitive and cultural complexity. We don’t just emote; we respond to our own emotions.
That response is generally an unseen process, but to write emotionally realistic characters, it’s something an author needs to understand. That’s where primary and secondary emotions come in.
What are primary and secondary emotions?
Depending on where you are in the world, there are as many as 48 to 128 recognized emotions. The most basic of these – fear, joy, disgust – are instantaneous; our instinctual reaction to the immediate moment. As part of coping with and contextualizing these emotions, humans also experience what are known as secondary emotions.
For example, a person experiencing fear or disgust at someone they perceive as different might cope with that negative, instinctual reaction by reacting with outrage, punishing the subject, or by feeling smug in their superiority, recontextualizing upsetting feelings as something positive.
There’s no total agreement on which emotions are primary and which are secondary, though Paul Ekman’s list of six (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise) has been influential enough that works such as the incredibly popular Inside Out (itself now used as a therapy tool) seem built on its foundations.
In anger management, differentiating between primary and secondary emotions is a technique used to defuse moments of rage – if you understand the primary emotion, the root feeling, you can avoid being steered by the secondary reaction. Someone who copes with prejudice by feeling superior, for example, is never actually going to rid themselves of that fear of the different, whereas someone confronting that fear might eventually reach a stage where it’s no longer felt.
This differentiation is so important when writing believable characters because it presents the true motivation behind their behavior. When we only see the secondary emotion, a person’s actions can seem as if they make no sense. In the above example, for instance, why would someone who feels superior to another person bother to denigrate them? The answer is that the action doesn’t stem from the emotion, but rather both are reactions to the primary emotion – both efforts to salve the fear.
In this way, understanding primary and secondary emotions describes the hidden process by which an immediate reaction governs the actions your character takes, as well as how you can communicate that process to the reader. Why does Kevin’s alienation from his mother in We Need to Talk About Kevin lead him to hurt others? By the end of the book, Kevin isn’t sure himself, but the reader gets it, because Lionel Shriver shows enough of his characters’ inner lives to show not just how they react, but what they’re reacting to.
Primary and secondary emotions in fiction
Let’s take an in-depth look at a single passage to explore how primary and secondary emotions influence characterization.
In the midst of friends, home, and kind parents, she was alone. To how many people can any one tell all? Who will be open where there is no sympathy, or has call to speak to those who never can understand? Our gentle Amelia was thus solitary. She had no confidante, so to speak, ever since she had anything to confide. She could not tell the old mother her doubts and cares; the would-be sisters seemed every day more strange to her. And she had misgivings and fears which she dared not acknowledge to herself, though she was always secretly brooding over them. Her heart tried to persist in asserting that George Osborne was worthy and faithful to her, though she knew otherwise. How many a thing had she said, and got no echo from him! How many suspicions of selfishness and indifference had she to encounter and obstinately overcome! To whom could the poor little martyr tell these daily struggles and tortures? Her hero himself only half understood her. She did not dare to own that the man she loved was her inferior; or to feel that she had given her heart away too soon. Given once, the pure bashful maiden was too modest, too tender, too trustful, too weak, too much woman to recall it.
Vanity Fair’s best-known character, Becky Sharp, is a renowned masterpiece of complexity. I want to look at this description of Amelia, though, as a way of remembering that even lesser characters need to be fully developed.
The first sentence, ‘In the midst of friends, home, and kind parents, she was alone,’ is evocative for anyone who’s ever felt alone in a crowd. It’s a whole different level of loneliness, accompanied by a degree of confusion and a sense of invisibility. There’s a touch of gratitude, too, in acknowledging that the parents are ‘kind.’
On top of that, she feels misunderstood, undervalued, and distrusting: ‘Who will be open where there is no sympathy, or has call to speak to those who never can understand?’ In being stripped of her voice, she may also feel shame, inferiority, anxiety, or irritability.
She feels full, bursting: ‘She had no confidante, so to speak, ever since she had anything to confide.’
She’s isolated from her family, and probably has a sense of abjection as a result: ‘She could not tell the old mother her doubts and cares; the would-be sisters seemed every day more strange to her.’
She has ‘misgivings’ and ‘fears.’
She’s in self-denial: ‘…she dared not acknowledge to herself.’
She’s holding a secret, which leads toanxiety. She’s ‘brooding.’
She’s conflicted: ‘Her heart tried to persist in asserting that George Osborne was worthy and faithful to her, though she knew otherwise.’ There’s also a tinge of optimism in here – wanting to believe that he’s worthy and faithful, and a sense of self-distrust whereby her heart persists in wanting to believe something that her head knows to be false.
She is suspicious and she feels disregarded (when he shows ‘selfishness and indifference’).
She feels tortured.
She’s afraid (‘did not dare to own’) and in love (‘the man she loved’) and superior (‘was her inferior’) and embarrassed over feeling superior (she won’t admit it).
She feels regret (‘she had given her heart away too soon’).
There’s modesty, tenderness, trust, and weakness. There’s gender identification and adaptation to society’s standards.
How much more powerful than saying, ‘She was lonely and confused.’ This short passage conveys a tumult of emotions, evocative of real-life experience, each cascading into the next. Amelia isn’t just a placeholder in a plotline. She’s a real person.
The passage also illustrates that character development doesn’t require a ton of space. People worry about spending too much time on character description and losing readers’ interest; but in this one short paragraph, we have a lifetime of experience, plus insights into some other characters, plus insights into the society in which Amelia lives. It’s efficient and effective, using emotive layering to bring Amelia to life. Note: it’s hard to tell which emotions are primary and which are secondary. This is also realistic.
As homework, choose a literary character and analyze their emotional complexity. Fun choices might be: Peter Pan, Anne (of Green Gables), Julien Sorel, or Bathsheba Everdene. Bonus points if you quote a passage full of primary and secondary emotions in the comments below.
Exceptions in characterization
Flat or one-dimensional characters aren’t always a bad thing. However, flat characters should exist in service of something else – be it humor, plot, social discourse, another character, whatever – they are not the pièce de résistance.
Huckleberry Finn is scrappy and incorrigible yet sweet and innocent; impertinent yet compassionate. Layered on top of all his primary emotions, there are socially driven secondary emotions: sometimes a desire to be good and avoid hell, other times a to-hell-with-hell tenacity. This more complex character is explored partly through the inclusion of emotionally flat adult characters who work particularly well since, seen through the eyes of a child, their emotional simplicity is realistic.
See if you can think of any flat characters that work and why and share them in the comments below.
How to nail primary and secondary emotions
There are a number of ways to incorporate primary and secondary emotional layering into your writing.
1. Read, read, read
Keeping the above notes in mind and look for emotional complexity as you read. And read. A lot. Keep notes on what you learn so you can incorporate your findings into your own writing practice.
Take whatever circumstances your character is facing, consider their background and personality, and immerse yourself. Let’s say one of your characters is falling in love. Primary emotion: joy. Be present with your character. When was the last time you felt unadulterated joy? What was it about? Was it love? Success at work? The birth of a child? Summiting a mountain? How long did it last? What detracted from the emotion or led to its dissolution? Were you eventually afraid of losing what you had obtained, or did you in fact lose it? Did your feelings eventually diminish due to weariness or the passage of time or jealousy of someone in an even better position? What in your background or future informed your response to your happiness? Did the happiness grow?
Now, back to your character. He is falling in love. What is his history? Has he ever been in love before? If not, will he be nervous? Full of anticipation? Anxious? Confused? If so, how did it end up the last time, and how will that impact him now? Will he be hesitant? Prone to jealousy? Fearful? Confident? Prepared? Do his parents or other people close to him have a good relationship? If so, will that lend strength or optimism to his feeling of joy? If not, will it add apprehension or distrust? Use your own life experience, and that of your character, to inform what that reaction (secondary emotion) will be.
When you’re not in the middle of a story, playing around with character ideas can be fun (and fruitful). Keep a journal full of character ideas, and add some emotional layering to your imaginative journaling. Some emotional pairings are obvious:
When we’re startled because someone jumps out a corner and scares us, a secondary emotion is anger.
When we feel proud of a friend for their accomplishments, we may also feel jealous or a sense of solidarity, depending on how we ourselves are doing.
When we feel disgust for something and don’t want to let go of that disgust, we are likely to experience a process of justification and resulting confidence.
When we feel fear, we might respond with courage or determination.
Google a long list of emotions. Put them together in random pairs and write scenarios in which those emotions interplay. Give us a sample of your work in the comments below.
Go forth and emote
Writing believable characters is a lot of hard work. When we are writing in the zone, we trend toward simplicity and clichés. That’s fine in service of getting the plot onto the page. But when you go back and self-edit, every moment of emotion should be evaluated through in-depth role-play so that you can convey a realistic person rather than a perfunctory caricature.
Literature and TV are chock-full of compelling but detestable protagonists. Even when these characters don’t undergo a dramatic transformation – à la Ebenezer Scrooge – they captivate an audience and are often wildly popular. Let’s explore what makes unlikable protagonists work. There’s a little bit of human psychology behind it and plenty of literary mechanism.
Why we like what we don’t
We need to begin by acknowledging that people are fascinated by terrible things. People pay big bucks to gawk at macabre paintings; they award and gape at photography depicting war corpses; they even make themselves late to work because they can’t help rubbernecking at car accidents. They laugh at the politically incorrect (Borat) and celebrate the morally reprehensible (A Clockwork Orange). Bizarre though it may seem, a glimpse into human fascination with the unpleasant can inform the way we write successfully unpleasant characters.
Pleasure, no pain
A couple of psychologists from the University of Colorado, A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, have a theory about humor that’s apposite to our discussion:
We laugh when Moe hits Larry because we know that Larry’s not really being hurt. It’s a violation of social norms. You don’t hit people, especially a friend. But it’s okay because it’s not real… comedy comes from violating society’s rules, but only if the observer feels those rules have been violated in a safe way.
In other words, people are entertained by violations of social mores when they are benign; when nobody actually gets hurt. This doesn’t just apply to humor. Consider the way a crowd gasps in a collective adrenaline rush when two football players collide and one flies into the air. The exhilaration of injury is benign because it’s part of the entertainment value of football. The thrill is lost if the player is legitimately hurt, and the audience applauds when he gets up.
This mechanism has even more potential in fiction, because there’s no risk of taking the pain too far. It’s the reason Loony Tunes is funny. Nobody would actually laugh if somebody ran off a cliff with a box of dynamite, but the combination of distance and drama makes it engaging. Likewise, if most of us saw an actual beheading, we’d never recover. When we see it in The Patriot, there’s a rush of adrenaline without any real-life consequences.
Though a happy ending isn’t prerequisite for this correlation, more people like the unlikable when it leads to something positive. As communications specialists Mina Tsay-Vogel and K. Maja Krakowiak point out, readers forgive Severus Snape for his part in the murder of Harry’s parents because he helps defeat Voldemort. Snape never really becomes any more likable as the series progresses, but his heroic contribution to a positive outcome makes him work as a character.
Readers enjoy things in literature and other media that they wouldn’t enjoy in real life. They experience adrenaline or excitement without any consequences. One way to craft an unlikable-but-successful protagonist is to make sure they are exciting or intriguing. Think Snape (mysterious, element of surprise) or Hannibal Lecter (the train wreck from which we can’t avert our eyes). Bonus points if the character contributes something good.
At least I’m not that bad
Susan Feagin, a philosopher of art and aesthetics, assesses the paradox of enjoying the unpleasant as a matter of contrast. We compare ourselves or our own response to the negative sensations the media produces. We enjoy fear, for instance, because we enjoy overcoming fear. Another application might be this: we enjoy morally reprehensible characters because they simultaneously allow us to indulge in perversity without actually being perverse and because they make us feel good by comparison. Tsay-Vogel and Krakowiak again: ‘Morally ambiguous characters can actually make people feel better about their own actions in the real world.’
Such characters might range from Leslie Knope, who makes us feel oh-so-competent by comparison, to Lester Burnham, who we just want to throttle along with everybody else in American Beauty, to Hamlet, whose solutions to life’s problems include soliloquizing and killing people.
Unlikable characters make us feel better about ourselves, just as well-placed flaws make other characters both more believable and more palatable to readers. Even the unlikable protagonist, then, has to be consistent so that he or she is believable. Javert is consistent to the end, so that despite his relentless pursuit of our primary protagonist (Jean Valjean) and his radical legalism, there’s a place for admiration. People enjoy the conflicted nature of his character, and in the end feel they would have made a better choice.
Unlikeable ≠ boring
Just as characters that are too perfect are boring (Evangeline in Uncle Tom’s Cabin), characters that are pure evil are never going to succeed as protagonists. Notice the transformation of L. Frank Baum’s Wicked Witch of the West (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) to Gregory Maguire’s Elphaba (Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West). Maguire doesn’t cast Elphaba in a negative light; the point is that she has to gain some complexity in order to work as a protagonist. This might mean painting a villain as misunderstood, as Maguire does with the Wicked series, or as Neil Gaiman does in his classic fairytale retellings. Or it might mean adding depth to a genuinely unlikable character.
If your unlikable characters, even protagonists, are interesting, people are still going to engage them. This is part of human psychology. Now, let’s take those protagonists from passable to irresistible.
The frosting on the cake
When your protagonist is truly abhorrent, ‘compelling’ might not be enough. There are other elements you can weave into the story in order to support your repulsive leading man or woman. It’s not necessary (or ideal) to use all of the below; figure out which elements fit organically with your story and characters and try to draw them out of the existing material rather than forcing them in.
Tsay-Vogel and Krakowiak offer further insight. They had two groups of study participants read two different versions of the same story: one in which the protagonist has selfish motives for doing something objectionable and the other in which their motives for the same action have some altruistic quality. Participants showed preference for the latter. This is unsurprising for fans of Breaking Bad, whose protagonist is increasingly detestable across the series – arrogant, devious, grouchy, even murderous – and yet spectacularly popular. Walter White garners empathy early on, because he’s motivated by a desire to take care of his family and he’s battling cancer, an antagonist many of us are all too familiar with.
One characteristic that is bound to draw readers to any protagonist – from the real life Bonnie and Clyde to the iconic Sherlock Holmes – is mastery. Bonnie and Clyde obviously fall a few notches above Sherlock Holmes in terms of moral deplorability, but both are off-putting in disparate and important ways. Bonnie and Clyde are heartless murderers; Holmes is pompous and cold. Readers wouldn’t exactly be friends with either, but the outlaws’ cunning is gripping and Holmes’ genius is irresistible. Make your disagreeable leading character a genius at something, and readers will be captivated.
Anna Karenina manages to enthrall readers despite being dishonest, disloyal, heartless, and whiny, but a lot of her draw is pure sensuality. The same magnetism is embodied in characters like Scarlett O’Hara, Patrick Bateman, Amy Dunne, and Jay Gatsby (not to mention Dracula). There’s a beauty and romance tinged with danger – in Bateman’s case – or vexatiousness in the case of O’Hara. Dunne is overtly sensual and Gatsby is all mystery and glamour. Sex appeal is a powerful tool in crafting a compelling protagonist.
Think of Jordan Belfort of The Wolf of Wall Street – unapologetically extravagant and rather despicable. This work delivers a double whammy: readers get to enjoy the power and all of its glamour (this happens with Gatsby, too) and the ill portrayal of somebody with power and money makes readers feel a little smug about how much better they would behave in his shoes.
Humor probably requires less explanation. We laugh at caricatures – Ignatius Reilly, Rabbit Angstrom, Alexander Portnoy, Don Quixote, and countless others – because they offer relief from the reality that some people really do suck. It’s a similar to the pleasure we feel when someone wrongs us and we turn around and complain about them. If I grouse to my friend about my psychotic coworker, I’ll feel a tiny bit better. If I make a joke about the coworker, I’ll feel heaps better. McGraw, Warren, and Kan of Colorado University delve into this if you want to go deeper. Another bonus: most people, no matter how much they suck, aren’t as bad as their caricatures. So again, by comparison, we feel like the world we live in isn’t so bad after all.
People will also tolerate (or enjoy) a distasteful protagonist for the sake of a driving storyline, suspense, compelling social commentary, an epic setting, or just plain old really-awesome-writing. Madame Bovary succeeded on style alone. Scarlett O’Hara’s success was aided by a romanticized setting. Lolita’s Humbert is like the car accident – too grotesque to look away. Patrick Bateman is suspenseful. Outlaws in westerns and probably half the people in Star Wars are integral to a good story.
Crafting an unlikable protagonist
If you aim for an unlikable protagonist, let me give you one fair warning in advance: you need to be legitimately okay with some people absolutely hating your book. Claire Messud took a lot of flack for Nora Eldridge from The Woman Upstairs, even though the book was successful. I’ll let her have the last word today:
We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?’ What really makes fictional characters worth reading isn’t likability, exactly, but complexity, richness and the intangible charisma that keeps readers invested in their story. At any rate, likable people rarely make for an exciting narrative. It’s the flaws, ranging from minor foibles to horrible secrets, that add spice to the reading and raise the stakes of the narrative.
There are few serious poets, activists, and biographers who haven’t taken inspiration from the indomitable Maya Angelou. A woman of immense passion and experience, the late Angelou (author of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, six other autobiographies, and several books of poetry) could doubtlessly have given advice on anything from journalism to dancing to cable car maintenance, but it’s her writing (and her unique approach to her craft) that carved her literary reputation.
Angelou’s celebrated autobiographies and poems are characterized by innovation, energy, and honesty, and she leaves in her wake a legacy of texts, speeches, and lessons invaluable to writers of nonfiction, poetry, and even fiction alike. Here’s how Angelou can help you become a better writer.
1. Work, and take nothing for granted
‘A self-respecting artist,’ wrote Tchaikovsky, ‘must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.’ Angelou would have likely agreed with the Russian composer; like countless other artists, singers, and writers (including Zadie Smith and Anthony Horowitz), Angelou decried the popular and romantic vision of the artist as someone governed by strange fits of passion – rather, creation is about grit, hard work, and turning up.
Angelou spirited herself away to a rented hotel room each day, which she treated as a kind of bohemian office – there, she’d lounge on the bed, smoke, think, and write. While this certainly sounds more pleasant than most daily grinds, the time was not squandered or whiled away.
I try to pull the language in to such a sharpness that it jumps off the page. It must look easy, but it takes me forever to get it to look so easy. Of course, there are those critics – New York critics as a rule – who say, Well, Maya Angelou has a new book out and of course it’s good but then she’s a natural writer. Those are the ones I want to grab by the throat and wrestle to the floor because it takes me forever to get it to sing. I work at the language.
– Maya Angelou
The idea of ‘working at the language’ is key, particularly for poets. Like David Foster Wallace (who always wrote with a usage dictionary and thesaurus), Angelou was extremely conscious of the sheer breadth and beauty of English, and was not content merely to recycle trite compositions or replay clichéd metaphors. Instead, the perfect words were located for each sentence, line, and phrase. The language should be respected, and for that you need to pay attention; pay attention and work. After all, ‘Nothing will work unless you do.’
2. Be brave
In her nonfiction and poetry as well as in her activism, Angelou expressed remarkable bravery – but then, this was a woman who stood alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and James Baldwin during the Civil Rights movement! In her autobiographies and poems, Angelou wrote openly and honestly about her remarkable life, and she stood up for the ideals she believed in. She was not afraid to innovate and move beyond the limits of her genre (critics have pointed to the fictive elements in her autobiographies as evidence of this), and she tempered her message for no one.
One isn’t necessarily born with courage, but one is born with potential. Without courage, we cannot practice any other virtue with consistency. We can’t be kind, true, merciful, generous, or honest.
– Maya Angelou
In terms of writing, this means not being afraid to take risks in form, style, and content. Angelou’s own voice was uncompromising and honest, and she borrowed from styles and traditions outside of the literary canon, shocking contemporary critics and conservatives alike. Not one to fear controversy, she wrote about racism and her own experiences as a sex worker in raw, unashamed detail, helping to tear down old assumptions and power structures. Your own writing doesn’t have to attempt to provoke similarly seismic shifts, but it should be untampered, unapologetic, and bold! Believe in your own vision.
Now, I’d never shoot myself in the foot by suggesting only a self-edit, but I’d certainly agree with Angelou when she espouses the importance of self-editing and redrafting.
But the editing, one’s own editing, before the editor sees it, is the most important.
– Maya Angelou
If you’re not reading your own work back to yourself, you’re setting yourself up for failure – your editor will waste their energy picking through typos, plot-holes, and slip-ups that could easily have been patched prior to submission. You want to make sure all the easy work is done before you submit so that the editor can focus on the deep, difficult issues they’re specially qualified to tackle! Even more importantly, self-editing is necessary to ensure that your book fits your own personal vision.
Angelou didn’t do things by halves. A passionate woman, she threw herself into her writing, as well as into her various other jobs, interests, and pursuits: singing, dancing, activism, her faith… she did a lot of things, and she did them all well. The trick, apparently, is persistence.
You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.
– Maya Angelou
This is one of those seemingly obvious platitudes that somehow still takes you by surprise. Writers (particularly those of us writing between shifts or around family/career dedications) often get frustrated or dissatisfied by the quality of the writing they’re able to produce and feel down when they compare themselves to more successful writers (writers like Maya Angelou, for example) – but often the difference between a hobbyist and a professional is the amount of time they’re willing/able to dedicate to their writing and how determined they are to make it work. There’s a reason so many famous writers (Angelou herself, as well as Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver, J.K. Rowling etc.) have thumbed the poverty line – they’ve sacrificed an awful lot to ensure their writing is as good as it can be.
Now, I’m not suggesting you quit your job, leave your family, and focus on your novel – that would be irresponsible – but remember that improvement and success are often dependent on how much you do something. The old adage rings true: practice makes perfect.
5. Distract the ‘Little Mind’
Angelou treated the ephemera of the world with an almost spiritual reverence; every detail was saved and filed away, and even seemingly inconsequential moments could rise later on in stretches of beautiful memoir or verse. One such detail was the concept of the ‘Little Mind.’ A phrase coined by Angelou’s grandmother, the Little Mind refers to that stimuli-seeking part of the brain that seeks entertainment and distraction. Every writer has a way of asserting control over the Little Mind – Zadie Smith, for example, locks herself away from anything even remotely distracting and blocks her internet connection – and Angelou is no different.
So when I was young, from the time I was about three until thirteen, I decided that there was a Big Mind and a Little Mind. And the Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts, but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted to write about.
– Maya Angelou
Now, it’s certainly impressive that Angelou was able to delve deep into the subjects she wanted to write about while playing Solitaire or doing crossword puzzles – I can barely do those things independently of one another – but the core concept of distracting the Little Mind is the important thing here. How do you do it? Listen to music? Podcasts? Have the TV blaring in the background? Or maybe you don’t do it at all? If not, give Angelou a chance – she might just help you out.
Angelou’s legacy is a remarkable thing, and between the commonly cited autobiographies and poems lurk instructions and advice for budding writers, artists, and musicians. Even if you don’t write non-fiction or poetry, Angelou’s exemplary foregrounding of work, courage, self-criticism, persistence, and self-control should prove inspirational (and useful!) to anyone wanting to better express themselves. So go, rise, and work.
I really mostly just want to thank my wife… she was the one who had to put up with me. That she did so with love and patience and encouragement instead of strangling me, throwing my remains into a wood chipper, and then pretending she had never been married to me at all is a testament to the fact that she is, in fact, the single best person I know. I love her more than I can actually express in words – an irony for a writer – and am every day genuinely amazed I get to spend my life with her. I try to let her know how much I appreciate her, as often as I can. This is me letting the rest of you know, too. You have this book because of her.
Whoa! What a tribute. This is an acknowledgment that might actually improve your reading experience. How many times have you scanned an acknowledgment and then turned the page, uninterested? I admit I’ve done it more than once. If the writing or the tone doesn’t grab me, I rarely take the time to read every word. That’s a shame, because not only does it start my reading experience off with boredom, it also isn’t much of a tribute.
Unfortunately, the humble acknowledgment is often overlooked by authors. It’s a place to say a few thank you or an item to cross off the publishing checklist, but what if it could be more than that? I love the way John Scalzi puts it; an acknowledgment as a way to let the rest of the world know who made it possible for the book to exist. Not only do I, the reader, enjoy this peek at the process, but it also makes me eager to enjoy what comes next.
You may not want to include an acknowledgment in your book, but if you do, wouldn’t you prefer to write a great one? In that case, let’s examine a few ingredients that add flavor to a bland message.
What makes for a compelling thank you note? Well, sincerity is the key ingredient. A great acknowledgment goes the extra mile to explain why an author is grateful. It communicates the spirit behind the support, rather than the act itself. It gives readers a little window into the lives of the people who made the book possible. Scalzi doesn’t just say his wife supported him; he goes to the effort of communicating (humorously) how much effort that took.
You can imbue your acknowledgment with sincerity by:
Being specific. You don’t have to get too personal, but when they’re appropriate, those intricate details make even a short note compelling. After all, just because it’s true doesn’t men it’s not a story.
Remembering this isn’t a soap opera. Putting your true feelings into words can make a big impression, but you shouldn’t go overboard.
Avoiding ticking boxes. Authors can feel pressured to thank everyone they can think of (in fact, it can be something of a power trip), but this tends to dilute each individual acknowledgment and bore the reader. Remember, there’ll be other opportunities to fit people in.
However you do it, aim to make your acknowledgments page sincere. This is your chance to publicly thank the people who made your publishing dreams a reality! A sincere and thorough thank you in print is a huge honor, and one the reader understands, so make it count.
Variety takes an acknowledgments page from good to great. If readers encounter a series of formulaic notes, they’re unlikely to keep reading. And if your messages sound repetitive, how will they be received by those you’re writing about? Try to say what you feel in a unique way. Play with word choice, tone, or perspective. Consider these examples for inspiration:
To my friends and family: You all may be batshit crazy, but even if I got to choose, I’d still choose to be with you.
You know what all these have in common? The writer went the extra mile to communicate their feelings in an unusual way. They didn’t get crazy, and you don’t have to either. As my dad always says, variety is the spice of life.
Why not think of the acknowledgments page as a place to flex your creative muscles? Here’s a chance to let your voice shine. Do you have a great sense of humor but you’ve had to tone it down for a more serious subject? Maybe the acknowledgments page is a place you can play it up a bit. Does all the love have you feeling sentimental? That’s okay; wear your heart on your sleeve. Do you have a clever idea to play on a theme of the book? Go for it!
No need to force something that doesn’t feel authentic. I’m just saying it’s okay to let loose and write from your heart. This page is about you and about the people closest to you in the making of your book. That’s a big deal, and it’s something to celebrate.
What to avoid
Your acknowledgments are personal, so there are few rules for what absolutely doesn’t work, but there are enough common quirks for me to offer some advice in this area.
First of all, try to avoid thanking the reader, either individually or as a group. Every author is grateful to have readers, but the thanks is so general that no reader is actually taking it as a compliment, so it’s likely to come across as white noise. There are exceptions, of course (self-help books have a different relationship with their readers, for instance), but if you’re planning to thank the reader, ask yourself if you’re really going to make them feel good enough to warrant the time it took them to read it.
Second, do your best not to throw your reader under the bus in favor of the person you’re thanking. By this, I mean be aware that this isn’t the place for in-jokes or references that exclude the reader. A little mystery is intriguing, especially if the reader can grasp the situation without needing fine details, but it’s irritating to begin a book with the author talking over your head. Jessie J’s video for Price Tag balances on the line here – some listeners found the opening words intriguing, while others found them irritating, setting up a nagging confusion that isn’t addressed by the song.
Okay, Coconut Man, Moonhead, and (points to self) Pea! You ready?
Finally, try to avoid using your acknowledgment to proselytize. After the subtle art of creation that goes into a book, some authors encounter the freer space of an acknowledgment and can’t help adding a frank note about their opinions or agenda. Not only is this jarring, since this is often the first thing the reader encounters, but it adds a context that wasn’t there when the book was written. Where possible, don’t let bonus content steal from or pollute the work proper.
Couldn’t have done it without you
In the end, there are a thousand ways to write an acknowledgment, but the point is that it’s an opportunity to communicate with those who helped you and with your readers, so don’t waste it. Like parenting, writing takes a village. Let your tribe know how much you appreciate them and what their support means to you.
What tips do you use for writing an acknowledgment that stand out? How do you write compelling thank yous that your readers will enjoy reading? Tell us about an acknowledgment that stood out to you, or check out How To Nail Your Non-fiction Introduction for more great tips on this topic.
In part 1 of this article, I talked about what an ensemble cast involves and the times that writing one might be the best fit for your story. If that convinced you to embrace the ensemble (or if that’s what you wanted to do anyway), welcome to part 2, in which I’ll be talking about the mechanics of writing a great ensemble cast.
Let’s begin, then, by talking about what type of ensemble you’re looking to write.
Types of ensemble cast
When we talk about types of ensemble cast, we’re bringing together the ideas of how big your ensemble should be and how absolute you consider the term. For the sake of ease, this is best expressed through four varieties of ensemble cast:
The fan club ensemble
Some ensembles aren’t true ensembles because there’s still a clear single protagonist motivating the story. In both the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series, the book begins in the company of one character and follows their trials as they address a goal that, once addressed, concludes the series.
It’s hard to argue that these are true ensemble stories, but they’re still close enough for it to be worth talking about them as such. After all, the other characters are too well-rounded, too constantly present, to truly be called secondary characters. When the cast of the Lord of the Rings split up, the story splits with them – it’s definitely not just Frodo’s story, even if he started it, ends it, and does the most important things.
For comparison, consider The War of the Worlds, in which a pretty unimportant protagonist recounts the story. When he needs to tell the reader something he wasn’t there for, he encounters a stranger willing to pass on a message or describe their own experiences. Secondary characters are shuttled in where useful, they even get to take over the narration, in a way, but it’s undeniably the protagonist’s story, even though they’re not much of a character.
In contrast, the Lord of the Rings follows the Fellowship, splitting up when they do. In doing this, it embraces most of the benefits I described in part 1, so in terms of practical application, it’s worth treating this as a type of ensemble cast, even if it doesn’t technically make the grade.
The gang ensemble
This type of ensemble cast treats a small gathering of characters as its protagonists, gathering them together and head-hopping to get more out of the story. This is the ensemble of The Princess Bride – building up a scene while keeping things manageable.
The reader never truly has to remember who’s where or doing what, because the protagonists stick together, except in cases of quickly resolved misadventure. This ensemble is used to get the most out of characterization; each event can be mined for extra relevance without asking too much of the reader.
The diaspora ensemble
This type of ensemble takes a similar number of characters as the gang ensemble but doesn’t treat them as a group. As in Good Omens, these characters are offering the reader different viewpoints on different parts of the world and plot. They may be heading for a collision course (indeed, this is generally the thing that justifies the focus placed on them), but they’re not a single entity. This allows the author to justify moving around the world while still allowing for focused characterization – the reader is seeing different people in different places, but they’re the same different people, and the places are part of a consistent journey.
The vast ensemble
This type of ensemble tends to be less about valuing a large but limited set of characters and more about decentralizing the story and even rejecting the idea of a protagonist. This tends to suit stories where the events and their consequences are the focus, since the author gives themselves carte blanche to go where the action is. This is the ensemble of A Song of Ice and Fire; characters that interest the reader, that they care about, but who can be killed off in a moment because they’re not ‘needed’ in any strict narrative sense. They’re the best way of recounting that particular moment, and a skilled author can make them a great place to visit, but they’re dwarfed by what they’re being used to explore.
Vast ensembles are common in fantasy writing (which tends to have epic conflict and large worlds that need to be fleshed out) but also non-fiction. Writers like Jon Ronson have a tendency to tell a larger story by using individual experiences to illustrate general points. In So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, for example, Ronson visits multiple people who’ve suffered in the court of public opinion. Their stories are emotional and interesting, but they serve the purpose of exemplifying Ronson’s larger thesis. In fact, this is necessary to the text; the factor that makes it valuable and incisive rather than voyeuristic.
This type of ensemble is the best for scope, and can even create depth, but it does few extra favors in terms of characterization (it’s still possible, of course, it just doesn’t get the same boost as with closer-knit ensembles).
Writing a great ensemble
The ensemble that’s right for your story is defined by the aspects of your narrative that you want to emphasize, but the tighter you keep them together, the more opportunities for characterization, and the more you disperse them, the greater the opportunities for communicating scope. Happily, depth remains relatively constant, so long as the ensemble are developed as individuals.
So that’s what you need to know to decide the type of ensemble that will suit your story, but how do you write them? Well…
Goals and conflict
Conflict is what makes stories run, so for a character to really matter to a story, they have to be bringing some of that conflict. In terms of character, conflict tends to emerge from someone having a goal and trying to meet it.
For a character to truly be part of an ensemble, rather than just a supporting character, they need to have their own goal. Any character who doesn’t want something (and isn’t trying to get it) just isn’t doing enough to be part of an ensemble.
Not only that, but it’s unrealistic; we’re all the heroes of our own stories, and we all have goals and desires. When characters don’t possess those qualities, it’s more like the author is stripping them of those motivations rather than just forgetting to add them – it’s something you do to a character to place them in the background; the opposite of putting them in an ensemble.
Different means different
For characters to justify their place in an ensemble, they need to be adding something new – a unique perspective that lends them a specific value in the context of the story.
This might mean they’re off in their own corner, adding something other characters don’t, or it may mean their presence allows you to explore other characters in new ways. Maybe they’re the funny one of the group, or the stoic, and they’re not just their own character but a way to provoke deeper characterisation and conflict.
Often, writing an ensemble means deliberately setting up relationships that allow you to render each character in more detail. It’s something we covered in depth in This Is The Blueprint For A Perfect Cast Of Characters, so I won’t overexplain it here, but suffice to say that certain character types are great for opening up lots of different potential interactions.
The good, the bad, and the ugly
When trying to make every member of an ensemble work as a fleshed-out character, remember that they’ll need their fair share of virtues and flaws. Introducing a character who’s a computer expert or a bruiser isn’t quite enough – those skills make them useful, but generally useful to the actual protagonist. Again, Bond is surrounded by such characters, and no-one’s mistaking them for co-leads.
If a character’s in the ensemble, the story is at least partly about them. That’s why they need a goal, that’s why they need to be unique in your roster of character, and that’s why they need their own virtues and their own flaws.
Ensemble stories focus on events that no single character can resolve. That means that the members of your ensemble need to contribute to events in a real, idiosyncratic way. Make sure they have an impact on the story, both through what they do right and what they do wrong. If you look over the plot and that’s not the case, shuffle around the duties so every member of the ensemble steers the story at some point.
Don’t be afraid to break up the group
It can be tempting to keep a good ensemble cast together, but they’ll grow more if you split them up, even if only for a little while. In many cases, even trying to write a scene in which your ensemble cast is split up can show you if they’re truly strong enough to carry a story. It’s possible that, on closer inspection, your ensemble are actually close-knit secondary characters packed around the true protagonist.
Since your ensemble all want things and are different, fleshed-out people (and since you’ve considered all their different relationships as you write them), you should feasibly be able to split them up into any configuration and write interesting, worthwhile scenes.
It’s also worth noting that, once your ensemble is strong enough, there’s no reason not to put them through different experiences. Let them express their value by giving them different paths, different information, and different challenges.
This is one of the core strengths of the Fellowship from the Lord of the Rings books – Tolkien takes his time establishing who each character is, and how they relate to each other, and then splits them up and hurls them to the four corners of an epic war.
The hobbits Merry and Pippin are great examples – those unfamiliar with the story often see them as the ‘other’ hobbits; the bumbling, comedic pals of Frodo and Sam, but it’s not the case. They have their own journey in the story, their own chance to steer the story, and Tolkien gives them the space to be both flawed and virtuous.
Assemble the ensemble
At its root, writing a great ensemble means putting in more work for greater rewards – fleshing out more characters and writing a plot that offers each of them the space and opportunity to matter. Ensuring each character works is a mixture of hard work and trial and error, and the best exercise you can do to achieve it is the one I already mentioned: split your groups up, create odd combinations, and see if they can truly carry a scene.
Try to also keep your eye on any single character claiming all the attention or fixing all the problems. It might make them particularly interesting, but you can still have that interest if you spread their feats over the ensemble, it’s just that you also get the benefits of a larger, more diverse cast.
In practice, ensemble casts don’t suit every project, but they’re an option you should consider as you develop your story. They can bring depth to simple stories, scope to larger ones, and give you the options you need to tell the most realistic, engaging version of your narrative possible.
Writing an ensemble cast is harder than writing a single protagonist for the same reason that catching five cats is harder than catching one: you’re trying to do the same difficult thing multiple times, and the fact that you’ve already succeeded once doesn’t necessarily make the next step any easier – in fact, it could even make it harder.
And yet, for all that effort, you can expect a larger reward. That’s why, in this two-part article, I’ll be looking at how and why you should write an ensemble cast. In this, part 1, I’ll be exploring the benefits of an ensemble, as well as laying the groundwork for part 2, in which I’ll talk more about the technical decisions that help writers create an interesting ensemble cast (rather than a great protagonist surrounded by a bunch of hangers-on).
As ever, we’ll begin by making sure everyone’s clear on the terminology.
What is an ensemble cast?
An ensemble cast is a group of characters in which the major characters are of roughly equal levels of importance, generally typified by having no single, specific protagonist. In literature, the strictures of this definition can be strained against – you can have an ensemble cast where one character is a smidge more important, but where others receive almost as much attention and development – but the general intent is that the story is ‘about’ multiple characters rather than an individual.
Writing an ensemble cast is difficult because it involves deliberately splitting a reader’s attention in a way they still find enjoyable. For example, if you had an idea for a spy in a fantasy setting, it’s not enough to drag in her brother and her accountant and call it an ensemble – one of those characters is more interesting, and if the reader spends all their time with everyone else wishing they could get back to that other character, you’ve written a failed ensemble.
In the above example, however, you probably didn’t want an ensemble cast; unless you have a specific reason to bring in an ensemble, it sounds like you’ve got a great idea for a story that focuses squarely on one protagonist (although depending on your taste, you may think I mean the spy or the accountant).
So when should you consider writing an ensemble? Well, when your story will particularly benefit from one of the factors below…
One of the best arguments for writing an ensemble cast is to tell a larger story. George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series describes events that effect not just multiple groups of characters but whole kingdoms. They’re ‘about’ a particular struggle, and that struggle is best illustrated through a cornucopia of characters, each of whom is best equipped to shed light on a specific area.
By embracing an ensemble cast, Martin leaves himself free to move around his world, expanding the scope of his story. To do the same thing with a single protagonist, he’d have to either sacrifice certain information, occasionally dump them to flit away (a tactic that leaves the reader in no doubt that they’re being led around by a very present author), or contrive for a protagonist to keep being shipped around the world, overhearing vital information at every step.
The scope of Martin’s story is best conveyed through an ensemble, and so that’s what he chooses to write. It’s not the case, however, that only expansive stories benefit from an ensemble cast.
While larger stories derive scope from an ensemble cast, smaller stories can give themselves depth. William Goldman’s The Princess Bride uses an ensemble cast to explore what’s otherwise a pretty basic fairy tale plot: true love is spoiled by an evil prince who kidnaps the female protagonist, and the male protagonist sets off in pursuit.
The ensemble starts off early by introducing a framing device in which a fictional version of the author talks about the story proper, but the reader is most aware of it when a trio of goons show up to kidnap the apparent protagonist, Buttercup. Goldman renders these goons lovingly, even including flashbacks to their earlier lives, and folds them into the cast, giving each a clear goal that the reader wants to see fulfilled, and perhaps even making them more interesting than the protagonists the reader has already encountered (though the latter drive the plot more, so it comes out pretty equal).
By doing so, Goldman turns a basic story of rescue and adventure into an ensemble masterpiece – the reader cares about multiple characters at any given moment, often in different ways. The reader doesn’t just want the protagonists to win, they want them all to get different things, and they approach each scene in terms of the myriad rewards and threats implied for each member of the ensemble. Yes, the reader wants Westley to escape the castle as quickly as possible, but they’d also really, really like Inigo to have the chance to confront and kill the six-fingered man, even if it has to cost him his life (or maybe not, as that would surely break Fezzik’s heart).
By bringing an ensemble cast to such a simple plot, Goldman finds a way of looking at events from multiple angles, creating the ideal mix of simple but deep storytelling. That’s not to say, of course, that an ensemble cast doesn’t suit a genuinely complex story.
Some stories cry out for an ensemble cast by their very nature. Murder mysteries, for example, thrive on an ensemble cast. Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None more or less needs an ensemble, since rendering multiple characters as equally complex and important means that any one of them could be the murderer.
In other books, Christie uses detective protagonists, but that’s a device that tends to lend a spirit of order to a story; the reader rides the shoulder of the person here to set things right. And Then There Were None is a little darker, and its air of uncertainty is supported by an ensemble cast.
And Then There Were None is such an interesting example because the story is altered in many adaptations (following the example of Christie’s stage play) to allow for a happier ending. This necessitates changing two characters to be less morally dubious and, as a result, often also means they become the actual protagonists of the story. Studying a few different adaptations alongside the original is a masterclass on what the characters are doing for the story.
For all its quality, however, And Then There Were None is a standalone classic of the genre. How can the ensemble help if you’re still shaping your story or even planning a sequel?
The flipside of the variety offered by ensembles – the ability to do lots of things with lots of people – is the lack of pressure that puts on any single character. Individuals can still be interesting, well-rounded, and important to the plot, but they also don’t have to carry that plot or be the single source of information and solutions within it.
In fewer pieces of fiction is this more apparent than Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead. Kirkman’s series began in 2003 and is still going strong, partly because his huge ensemble cast is constantly changing, evolving, and dying.
In a post-zombie-apocalypse American, Kirkman asks what values survive when life is once again a daily struggle. It turns out that the answer varies depending on who you are: a science teacher has a lot to add to a group trying to put down roots, as does a cop with the latent potential for leadership, a farmer who knows what grows where, and an ordinary guy who knows the nearby city like the back of his hand.
In writing such a vibrant and interesting cast, Kirkman shares out the plot-relevant duties. It means no-one’s ever unbelievably well-informed or capable and, consequently, convinces the reader that Kirkman might kill off anyone at a moment’s notice.
Similarly, Kirkman has room to breathe; characters can lie or mess up long term. With a smaller cast, deceit is difficult because so much is riding on them that the plot pushes the author to reveal the truth or else make it the basis of their character. One of Kirkman’s characters lies about having government contacts for a long stretch of the story, thinking it will motivate the others to protect him, and the lie is allowed to emerge naturally over time. After all, the reader was only spending so much time with that character, so it was entirely possible to be economical with his backstory.
This is one of the main benefits of an ensemble cast – you’re far freer to explore ideas that would otherwise fall over each other. Things can happen concurrently in a way single protagonists can’t quite manage, and characters the reader truly cares for can make genuine, lasting mistakes. When a protagonist messes up, the results generally need to be dealt with quickly, as they have to go on and do other things. An ensemble cast allows you to have a character marinate in their errors and even to truly ruin their lives without dedicating your whole story to that process. When Kirkman kills a character, the reader feels it, and so do their friends, but there are other members of the ensemble who didn’t really know them and can carry the action or humor while the rest of the cast is grieving.
The cumulative effect is the potential for flexible stories and realistic characterisation. If your single, central protagonist loses their wife, you probably either need to skip ahead a little or else paint a less than realistic portrait of immediate grief, but Kirkman’s characters are free to suffer, and that makes them feel far realer. This variety of characterization is another great benefit of the ensemble cast.
An ensemble cast means each character carries less of the burden of plot: that is, there’s much less of what they ‘must’ do and far more of what they ‘can’ do. In this way, writing an ensemble cast can lessen the focus on one person in order to enhance the characterization of five.
Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, for example, doesn’t just have an ensemble cast, it has ensemble casts: ‘Them’, a gang of children that includes the Anti-Christ, the witchfinder army and Anathema Device, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and Aziraphale and Crowley (an angel and demon who have known each other so long that they’re basically workmates).
It’s a story in which the characters who motivate the plot don’t know there’s a plot to motivate and the characters who know what’s going on can’t intercede. Each character is enjoyable to spend time with and especially to see interact with the others.
The variety of an ensemble gives Gaiman and Pratchett the ability to only focus on certain characters when they have something to add, refining their characterization to those moments the reader will enjoy and learn from the most, and populating an entire book with such moments for different characters. Sometimes (though only sometimes) what an interesting character needs to really shine is to be split in two, the better to tighten in on their best features.
With a few exceptions, the 007 books tend to be pretty dire, and this is part of their problem – when your book is about the most capable man in the world doing everything by himself, it’s difficult to make him interesting. After all, he’s pretty busy, and if you want him to struggle or fail or doubt (the types of moment that will make a reader root for him), the book has to be about that struggle until it’s resolved. Yes, Bond bounces off secondary characters, but they tend to either fall by the wayside as the plot gets going or else act as pit stops along the way.
It doesn’t take much to imagine Bond as a two-person team who can share out his materialism, patriotism, duty, etc. and express those motivations with a little more depth and freedom. It might create a less absolute picture of the take-no-nonsense protagonist, but it would also create a character who’s known as much for his personality as his deeds – something a little more at home in the modern literary marketplace.
Finally, the ensemble means that you’re able to offer a wider variety of characters to a wider variety of reader. Good Omens fans frequently argue about their favorite characters, since there are so many to choose from, but if James Bond isn’t your type of guy, you’re probably not going to get much from a Bond book.
The benefits of an ensemble cast
So those are some of the major benefits of the ensemble cast. Remember, by the way, that they’re not mutually exclusive – murder mysteries benefit from an ensemble cast partly because of the increased opportunities for characterization, and a large cast doesn’t just increase the scope of an epic event, it can also make it feel real. Alan Moore’s Watchmen, for example, spends time building up an ensemble cast partly so a disaster late in the story will feel both vast and personal when it wipes them all out.
An ensemble cast doesn’t suit every story – a deep character study can get sufficient use out of secondary characters to make a tight, single-character focused work, and some plots are so streamlined that the reader doesn’t want to split their attention – but it’s a device that many authors don’t consider, even though it could be exactly what their story needs.
So that’s the case for writing an ensemble cast. In a couple of days, I’ll talk about the logistics of doing so in part 2, but for now, let me know your favorite ensemble cast stories in the comments, as well as sharing any questions you have about whether an ensemble cast would suit your narrative. If you can’t wait, you can check out How Many Characters Should A Novel Have? and How To Avoid Writing A Mary Sue Protagonist for more great advice on this topic.
So would a framing device help your story? Is it the missing feature that will bring your narrative together into its best form? Is it even possible for your project? Let’s find out.
What is a framing device?
A framing device, also known as a frame story, is a story told around another story, usually justifying the main narrative and lending it context. For example:
“Time for bed!” said Grandma.
“Oh, but please tell me a story!” I begged.
“Very well,” said Grandma, sitting on the end of my bed. “Once upon a time there was a brave knight. She loved a fair prince, but he was captured by a dragon with seven heads. The knight chased after the dragon, discovering on the way that each head had a talent; one was smart, one was cruel, one had impeccable aim. Anyway, on her journey, she learned all the skills she needed and she beat the heads one by one and she saved the prince and they married. Now, goodnight.”
“That wasn’t a very long story!” I protested.
“Yes, well,” said Grandma, turning out the light. “It’s not as if I had to beat any of them at storytelling.”
In the story above, the story about the knight is the main story, but the story about a grandma telling that story is the framing device. Like a literal frame, it surrounds and (hopefully) enhances the main story. In this case, it’s intended to give the happy ending some kick by grounding it in a more realistic, domestic setting.
That’s not the only way a framing device can improve your story, of course, so let’s take a look at some more potential advantages.
Manipulating the reader’s experience
One of the most effective uses of a framing device is to influence the reader from outside the story proper. The Princess Bride uses the framing device of the author preparing the main story for his son. As the story progresses and the narrative occasionally revisits this fictional version of the author, he becomes less and less emotionally trustworthy, to the point that many readers will have a negative opinion of him by the story’s end.
This is effective because it means that, when he expresses an opinion, it can be used to directly and indirectly influence the reader’s experience of the story. When, for instance, he suggests a pessimistic reading of the ending, the reader is prompted to resist the opinion of someone they don’t like and consciously approach the story from a more optimistic viewpoint.
The framing device is so useful here because it allows the main story to remain above the fray; it doesn’t have to over-sell a positive ending or address how the reader could or should approach its conclusion. Doing so would have been difficult in the main story, especially given the established voice and the fantasy setting. A realistic frame with a slightly different voice opens up new possibilities for how the reader’s relationship with the story can be altered.
Grounding the narrative
Sometimes, a story’s raw state can be alienating to some readers – their suspension of disbelief might be challenged by immediate exposure to a lot of obviously fictional elements. In such cases, the right framing device provides a more acceptable entry point, breaking up the process of acclimatizing to the narrative.
The difference can be seen in literary and cinematic versions of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In the book, Dorothy’s adventures are real: a cyclone carries her off to Oz where she has fantastical adventures. In the classic film, the adventure is a dream, with the more realistic, down-to-earth frame presented in a sepia tint to clearly differentiate it from the main story.
For a larger budget project targeting a wider audience, it’s the safe play, but that doesn’t make it a bad one, especially if your main story is particularly out there and you’re worried about how to get the reader invested.
Framing devices don’t just ground the story in a more mundane setting, they allow the author to tether the main story to a voice, theme, or concept that doesn’t otherwise fit its telling – they could even be more extreme, adding a tinge of something that wouldn’t suit the whole but still adds to it.
Justifying the narrative
Some stories need a reason to be told. Most commonly, this is the case with short story collections – some readers will happily pick them up, but some readers much prefer a frame to hold the stories together and make them a single entity.
Books like One Thousand and One Nights and The Canterbury Tales use a framing device to bind the stories together, turning them into one story. It’s not just a trick, either; the stories are related by theme and reading one informs the others (in some cases, they’re even necessary for understanding, as in the Black Mirror episode ‘White Christmas’, in which the first two stories do necessary world and theme building for the third).
There are even books where the framing device is so enmeshed in the main story that they’re impossible to separate; Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There is arguably more of a short story collection than a consistent narrative, but the framing device binds the stories together enough that the reader experiences it as a whole.
Finally, some readers need a reason for a story to be told at all. Books like Wuthering Heights present themselves as a real individual’s account of a story, bringing in multiple characters to justify how one person knows so much. The majority of the story might not even be told directly through that character, but they address a desire in some readers for even the telling of a story to have a reason behind it.
Freeing the narrator
Adding a framing device means that the author has access to a narrative stream outside the main story. This can give an author a lot of freedom – in The Princess Bride, for example, the fictional version of the author from the framing advice can jump in at key moments, advancing the story or consolidating details in ways that would be harder to do in the main narrative. This character even explicitly says he’s cutting out the boring bits and, thanks to the framing device, the reader is willing to accept the intrusion.
Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves uses its framing story in the opposite way. Here, the character of the framing story is reading the main story, allowing Danielewski to tease out the plot and inflate the tension without adding unnecessary passages to the central narrative.
A framing device isn’t the only way to free yourself in this way – a B plot offers similar options – but it may be the technique that best suits your story.
Improving the ending
Finally, a framing device can be a great way to give your ending some oomph. The framing device for Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, for instance, doesn’t fundamentally change the story or, arguably, even really offer a new view on it, but it does offer the space for a final revelation, allowing the story to go out on a bang without forcing an extra twist into the main plot.
In contrast, the framing device for Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale offers valuable reflection on the main story and even has the potential to change how the reader understands it. Since a lot of this rests on how the frame distances the reader from the story they just read, it’s arguably a unique effect, or at least an effect reached in a unique way.
Frame your art
It may be that your story doesn’t suit a framing device, but it’s something worth considering when you run up against certain types of problem. Framing devices come in all shapes and sizes, from kindly grandparents to news reports, and can be exactly what epistolary stories need to really land. Likewise, if you’re considering a series of short stories or even a poetry collection, the right frame might even make your work more marketable.
Or not! Like all literary devices, whether or not to use a framing device is a decision unique to a project – the important thing is that it’s yet another tool you can bring to bear in the right situation.