Welcome to My World

When you hear the words “world building,” do you think of Westeros and Asgard? Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings? Neverland, Wonderland, Oz, and Narnia? In other words, do you tend to associate world building with the fantasy section in a bookstore?

Fantasy Castle with turrets and stone wall, clouds in the background.

While some of the most memorable worlds ever to capture the human imagination have come from fantasy writers, writers in other genres build worlds, too. Every work of fiction, every story that takes place in a fictional world, has a specific set of rules, customs, and expectations tied to the place and time in which the story unfolds.

If your story is set in the past (historical fiction or alternate history), or the future (SF or futuristic fiction), you’ve got a world to build.

If you’re writing a story that shifts cultural expectations (upending norms in, say, Silicon Valley or on Wall Street), or transports readers to a place in the world they know nothing about, then you, too, must practice the art of world building.

I’m currently coaching the MomWrites podcast writers, Abby Mathews and Mel Parish, both of whom are creating unique worlds into which readers will be able to escape. In Abby’s story, aimed at middle-grade kids, readers enter a magical world of storybook characters. In Mel’s, the action takes place in a dystopian reality, where characters have an opportunity to prolong their lives indefinitely, but not without a terrible cost. In both stories, there are characters who have to cope with problems arising from the fictional realities in which they find themselves. The challenge for both Abby and Mel is to figure out a way to show readers the fullness of the worlds they’ve created without stopping the action to do so.

Photo by Julian Paul

On the lookout for ideas that might help them with their work, I found inspiration in an unexpected place: I attended a talk offered by Crystal King, author The Chef’s Secret and Feast of Sorrow, called “10 Takeaways for Authors Writing Historical Fiction.” Though Abby and Mel aren’t writing historical fiction, I realized many of the same rules could be applied to building worlds for their genres.

Here’s Crystal’s list of advice (in italics) and my notes on how it can apply to other genres:

  1. Know your era. Not “just the facts, ma’am” but how it feels to be living in that particular time and place. What would people (or other creatures, depending on your genre) be likely to care about, talk about, dwell upon on an ordinary day? What would matter to them, upset them, spur them to act? If someone from your world showed up on my doorstep and started a conversation, what cues would tell me they probably aren’t from my neck of the woods? Create that impression for your readers.
  2. Consider setting as you would a character. Give it personality traits, develop a relationship between the setting and the characters in the story. (Examples: The Shining by Stephen King, The Hobbit by Tolkien, and The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman.)
  3. “Outline” your story, characters and world events. Figure out what’s going on in parallel in the world you’ve created, beyond the events taking place in your story. Can you set up the timeline (or “outline”) for your story so that “macro” and “micro” level events collide at just the right moment, increasing the conflict and tension? (Think of the snowstorm in The Shining, for example.)
  4. Don’t give history lessons; you aren’t a historian. Put another way: avoid info dumps. Show readers the historical (or scientific or technological or magical) details at the exact moment when those details serve a specific purpose in the story. Show how the characters interact with the history (or science/tech/magic). Ask yourself : Why would my character need to know about this RIGHT NOW?
  5. Get the little details right. “Right” as in accurate (double-checking facts and figures), but also right as in consistent. Keep a running list of names, dates, gadgets, slang, spells, and so on. That way, you can keep your sanity when you’re trying to remember the name of the whatsit or whether Howard is the guy who says “huzzah” instead of “kudos.” (Examples of books that get the details right: The Stationary Shop by Marjan Kamali, and Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.)
  6. Employ backstory sparingly. Don’t avoid backstory entirely! Just don’t dump it in where it isn’t needed. (See #4 above—the same applies to backstory. Use it to serve the story.)
  7. Visit the location. Well . . . if that’s possible. If not, look for other ways to experience in real life what you’re trying to create on the page. The idea is to get a feel for what it would be like to inhabit that world. Not only visually, perceptually, but viscerally as well. For example: Mel (of MomWrites) went to a shooting range to find out what it would be like for her character to hold and shoot a gun for the first time.
  8. Try to be fair. A world isn’t just a setting or a cast of characters—it’s also a cultural mindset. Especially with historical fiction, it’s important to avoid judging characters by present-day standards. Try to see the world from their perspective, even if it offends you. Then, use the story to make your point, allowing your characters to question the way things are.
  9. Be cautious with dialect and vernacular. If you aren’t 100% sure you can pull off a particular dialect, do more research. Talk to people who know and understand it well.
  10. You can’t get it all right. At some point, you have to stop fact-checking and move on. Does the world you’ve created seem authentic and credible? Is it an integral part of your story, reflected in the way your characters think and interact? Is it serving a purpose, deepening the story and helping to reinforce the point you want to make? If so, it may be time to cut the ribbon and declare the world ready for visitors.

For more on the subject of world building, check out:

Seven Rules for Writing Historical Fiction by Elizabeth Crook, who offers similar advice.

Picking the Right Setting Details by Becca Puglisi (Writers Helping Writers)

I Love Complicated Characters

Like many people, I read stories because I want to understand human nature. What makes us do the things we do? What thought processes do we go through, and what beliefs inform our decisions? What do we value, and how do we prioritize those values? My favorite stories—fictional or nonfictional—are the ones that show me characters who are a complicated stew of laudable and nefarious impulses, forced to act in difficult situations.

That’s why I was delighted with a session I attended at Muse and the Marketplace 2019 entitled, “She’s Terrible, and I Love Her: On ‘Unlikable’ Female Characters.” The presenters, Kelly J. Ford (author of Cottonmouths) and Michelle Hoover (author of Bottomland), provided a handout with a list of tricks used by successful authors to round out the humanity of “unlikable” female characters. I’ve since taken their list and organized it into three categories of strategies:

  1. Reveal who the character is in relation to other characters:
    • Give the character someone to love.
    • Include other characters who like or love her.
    • Show her beside a comparatively worse character.
  2. Temper the character’s unlikable traits with more likable ones:
    • Show her performing a redeeming action or pursuing a worthy goal.
    • Give her a redeeming skill, talent or interest that others don’t have.
    • Give her a compelling narrative voice—witty, intelligent, humorous.
  3. Develop (the reader’s) compassion for the character’s motives, if not her actions:
    • Weave in an intriguing or tragic backstory.
    • If she’s an outsider or isolated, show us why.
    • Give her agency and culpability, some control over her circumstances.
    • Let us see her breaking rules—unapologetically.

One more trick that didn’t fit into those categories: go “all in” on the female character’s disagreeable qualities. Ask yourself—or anyone who objects to the character—why they find her unlikable. Would the same set of traits be a problem if the character were male? To make a point, consider going over the top and creating a character who is everything a woman “shouldn’t” be (e.g., loud, crass, manipulative, self-centered, unfriendly, scowling).

The presenters provided interesting examples of authors who used one or more of these tricks to make their female characters more palatable. Of all the titles, the one most familiar to me was Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which portrays an outsider, Olive, who is flinty and coarse but volunteers for the Red Cross, talks a former student out of committing suicide, and deep-down loves her son. By the end of the book, I had become quite fond of Olive, perhaps because she reminded me of someone I love. (More on that below.)

Revealing Who the Character Is in Relation to Other Characters

I have always been fascinated by differences in perspective. For example, how is it that two siblings, after having been raised in the same home by the same parents, can look back on their upbringing with entirely different impressions of what transpired? Memoir writers certainly struggle with this predicament: in writing the story of their lives, they have to decide whose memory to trust when their own memories differ from the recollections of friends or family members. Whose perspective is the most reliable? Why is theirs the one you would choose to believe—or ignore?

We are all of us more complicated than the roles we are assigned in the stories other people tell. This is especially true in families.

Tara Westover

By showing who a character is to someone who loves her (or who is loved by her), you give readers a chance to see her in a new light.

Tempering the Character’s Unlikable Traits with Likable Ones

I grew up with a grandmother who some might describe as “unlikable.” She was cranky, irritable and pessimistic. If she thought you were overweight or didn’t like what you were wearing, she wasn’t shy about telling you. She was impossibly hard to please and drove my parents absolutely bonkers.

In this story, I was the “character” who adored the “unlikable” woman. Though she was cantankerous even with me, I valued her authenticity. She dispensed with niceties and never pretended to be cheerful or friendly when that wasn’t how she felt. I could always trust the face she was showing me, and her tiny apartment was where I felt free to be myself. When it was just the two of us, she told me stories about how she had become a teacher and raised a child on her own during the Great Depression, after her husband (my grandfather) had deserted her. She’d never owned her own house or had much money in the bank, but she made whatever she had on hand feel like plenty. She showed her love for me by turning triangles of toast into boats floating on a sea of Campbell’s soup, sewing fabric scraps into doll clothes, and transforming walks through the woods into treasure hunts.

Black and white photo of woman circa 1918.
Grandma Mac

In the story of my mother’s life, my grandmother was the most likely candidate for the role of antagonist. In the story of my life, Grandma Mac was the hero. I can’t predict whether you would have found her likable. I suppose that depends on your point of view and how well these “tricks” (her backstory, her redeeming actions and talents) work for you.

Developing Compassion for a Character’s Motives

The last item on the list of tricks—developing compassion for a character’s motives— is especially interesting to me, because it reinforces a fundamental truth about storytelling. If you show readers why a character does what she does (her motivation), they’ll be more likely to care about what’s going on in her story. As we all know, it’s far too easy to judge and misinterpret a person based on actions alone.

I believe this is the most powerful storytelling trick: To help readers relate to your unlikable character, show us who she is on the inside. Use her intriguing or tragic backstory to reveal why she feels the way she does. Show us what’s influencing her thinking and driving her decisions. What’s at stake for her? If she’s breaking all the rules, maybe they need to be broken. If she’s keeping to herself, maybe she has a compelling reason for doing so. We might still disagree with the choices she’s making, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we can’t empathize with why she’s making them.

A Final Note

For an excellent article on the importance of “unlikeable” female characters, check out Not Here to Make Friends by Roxane Gay, author of Not that Bad and Difficult Women.

Why Do You Write?

This past weekend, I was in the company of hundreds of other writers at Muse and the Marketplace 2019, “a three-day literary conference designed to give aspiring writers a better understanding about the craft of writing fiction and non-fiction, to prepare them for the changing world of publishing and promotion, and to create opportunities for meaningful networking.” For three glorious days, I was surrounded by a diverse group of people united in their love of books and writing. So many aspiring writers, so many stories, so many reasons for writing.

The theme of the conference this year was writing during a time of upheaval (personal, political, or cultural), and the message was clear: we must not allow ourselves to be silenced by fear or opposition or hardship. Bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize finalist Luis Alberto Urrea kicked off the conference with a keynote speech that was passionate and funny and mesmerizing. He spoke openly about overcoming shame and intentionally writing about life experiences that he’d been told to keep quiet about. He encouraged writers to notice the details that make their stories uniquely their own, stories only they can tell.

In the sessions I attended over the weekend, presenters spoke about finding their voice and writing despite the risks to themselves and their families. Lawyers for the family of convicted child molester Ricky Langley did not want Alex Marzano-Lesnevich to write about him in her memoir, The Fact of a Body. She fought the federal lawsuit while she continued to write. Anuradha Bhagwati received threats and risked the ire of family members and the Marine Corp when she wrote about her experience of racism, misogyny, and sexual assault in Unbecoming: A Memoir of Disobedience. She refused to give up. Kelly Ford, author of Cottonmouths, spoke passionately about writing stories with “unlikable” female protagonists and the negative reactions of agents, publishers and readers who disapproved of characters who didn’t conform to their expectations. She then handed out a list of bestselling books that have broken the rules. (Contact me if you’d like the list.)

All of these writers had stories they were burning to tell, whether or not anyone wanted to hear them. In fact, even as they were writing their stories, they knew there were people who definitely did NOT want their books to be published or read. But nevertheless, they persisted. They had a story inside them that needed to get out. They couldn’t stop writing if they tried. (Though Ms. Bhagwati, speaking from experience, emphasized the importance of self-care and restorative breaks when writing about trauma.)

Despite the critics and dissenters, these writers suspected there were people out there who needed to hear what they had to say—and they were right.

To persist with your writing during difficult times, to get past all the obstacles in your way, ask yourself why you are writing what you’re writing.

Why do you care? Why does your particular story or point matter to you?

If you’re writing during a time of upheaval—and that includes writing while raising kids or juggling a full-time job or caring for a sick parent—and you want to be successful, then write something that’s meaningful to YOU, something only you can write.

Meeting and Coaching in Person

Most of the time, I coach writers by phone or email, which allows me to work with people who live in different time zones in the U.S. as well as in other countries (Canada, Mexico, Australia and the UK . . . so far!). I enjoy a flexible schedule, and in general my introverted self likes being alone, sheltered from noise and distractions. If I happen to get restless, no problem! Being able to take my work with me when I travel means I don’t have to stay rooted in one place.

Sounds great, right? But of course there are downsides to long-distance relationships, which aren’t as up-close and personal as face-to-face conversations. It’s harder to feel a meaningful connection, harder to tell for certain how someone else is feeling.

Thus far, I’ve met only two of my writers face-to-face. The first time was with someone I’d been working with off and on for nearly three years. Chris and I had exchanged many, many emails and even a few photos during that time, and I’d already begun to think of her as a friend. So when she emailed to say she would be traveling to the east coast (asking, if she were to come to New Hampshire for the day, would I be available to meet?), I jumped at the chance. Though I was a little nervous, as any two people tend to be when they meet for the first time, I soon discovered we had a lot in common. We found plenty to talk about (though as I recall we spent very little time “talking shop”—right, Chris?).

After that delightful rendezvous, I went back to hibernating in my home office and working with writers remotely . . . until about a year later, when I was paired with an Author Accelerator writer who lived close enough to make me wonder about the possibility of another in-person meeting. When Anita told me she was teaching a class related to the book she was writing, I saw it as the perfect opportunity for us to get together. I looked forward to sitting in on the class, observing her teaching style, and talking to her in person about her project. Also, the university where she taught happened to be my alma mater, Brandeis University, and I’d read that the castle in which I’d resided as an undergrad had been partially torn down and reconstructed. I was curious to see what had replaced it.

Brandeis Usen Castle
Brandeis Usen Castle (prior to 2017 addition of Skyline residence hall)

When I asked how Anita felt about me dropping in on a class, she kindly sent her syllabus and invited me to come “any time.” We settled on a date, and as the date got closer . . . I began to get cold feet. Even though it had been my idea to meet, I felt more than a little pressure to impress, or at least not to disappoint. I worried about saying something stupid or revealing too much about myself, and I wondered how it might affect our ongoing work together if we didn’t hit it off. I didn’t want to take a chance on jeopardizing the project in any way, and there was always the possibility that an in-person meeting could go poorly.

Still, my overthinking such a simple encounter was a clear indication that I’d gotten a little too comfortable with my professional-relationships-at-a-distance lifestyle. The potential benefits of meeting in person far outweighed any imagined risks, so I juggled my schedule, buried my head in the assigned reading for the class (about 100 pages of scholarly prose), and tried to recall what little I could remember of the campus map. On the agreed upon day, I drove the ninety minutes to Waltham and headed to the Faculty Club, where we’d arranged to meet.

On my way there, I noticed the castle no longer looked quite the same. The contemporary Skyline addition (to the left, in the photo below) made it look as though the old building was a little confused, struggling to retain the past while extending itself awkwardly into the future. Feeling a little nostalgic for the way things had been thirty years ago, I thought about the ways in which I’d changed, too. I never imagined that I’d return to campus one day to help a member of the faculty write a book.

Brandeis Usen Castle (with the new Skyline addition to the left)

The minute I met Anita, I had a feeling everything was going to be just fine. She was warm and friendly and put me at ease right away. While I didn’t snap a selfie of the two of us together (my one regret—sorry!), I had a wonderful time getting to know her a little better, hearing about her work and plans for the future. In emails, I’d often reassured her that I believed in what she was trying to do, but I don’t think she wasn’t entirely convinced until she saw the excitement written all over my face. “You’re my target audience!” she said with a smile. Likewise, while her passion for what she was working on seemed genuine from the start, seeing her light up when she talked about the book helped me to understand just how much it meant to her.

After a leisurely lunch, we headed over to her class, where she introduced me as “the editor helping with the book she was writing.” When the students responded to that news with “ooh”s and nods of approval, I felt a warm glow that lasted through the rest of the afternoon. Yes, that’s who I am. That’s what I’m doing here. Being acknowledged so publicly made everything I’d been doing for the past four years as a book coach feel real and valued and important. Such an incredible gift.

I left Brandeis that day with a jar of Anita’s homemade peach jam and a copy of her first book clutched in my hands. In a subsequent email, she wrote that she felt “reinvigorated” by our meeting, which describes how I felt as well: energized to continue with the work ahead. To say “I’m glad I ventured out” would be an understatement.

Now that spring is almost here, what are your plans for branching out and seeing what others in the writing and publishing world have been doing during this long winter? Me, I’m hungry for more face-to-face encounters. I’ve just registered for The Muse and the Marketplace, a national conference for writers held in Boston, and in September I’ll be assisting with an Author Accelerator “Find Your Book, Find Your Mojo” writing retreat in Maine.

Care to join me?

Dealing with Setbacks

Ever doubted yourself when you’re trying to do something extremely challenging? Wondered why you’re putting yourself through painful feelings of inadequacy and moments of intense vulnerability when you could be safely binge-watching Netflix or curling up with a hot cup of tea and a bestselling novel?

If your answer is yes, you’re not alone. Every writer I’ve worked with has struggled with self-doubt, though some more than others, and everyone in their own way. Some worry about whether they have what it takes to write something other people will want to read. Others suffer from “imposter syndrome” and worry they aren’t “real” writers. They worry their work isn’t sufficiently clever or insightful or original to deserve anyone else’s attention.

As a book coach, one of my jobs is to help writers kick their doubt to the curb so they can get back to work.

But what if, as a coach, I’m the one suffering from self-doubt? Coaching a writer is challenging. Deciding what’s working and what isn’t in a manuscript is always a judgment call, and there are so many variables to consider when preparing feedback. Even if I manage to correctly identify the main trouble spots in a manuscript, I still have to decide what to provide feedback on first so I can help the writer target revisions in a way that will result in the most improvement in the least amount of time. And then, of course, there’s the writer’s personality and tolerance for critique to consider. How much feedback will be enough to make a difference, but not so much as to overwhelm? It can be tricky to find the right balance. Trickier still to have enough confidence, day after day, to be decisive.

This past week, a writer I’d been working with for over a year let me know she wasn’t happy about being asked to make (more) changes to her manuscript. How could I still be telling her, after a year of hard work, that there was more to cut and add? She needed to be done, she said. She thought she’d be getting ready to pitch to agents by now.

Her main goal wasn’t only to write the best book she could; she had hired me, a professional book coach, specifically to improve her chances of getting traditionally published. She’d already worked with two other editors, prior to seeking my help, and had revised her manuscript several times. So, this wasn’t a first draft we were talking about. Her frustration was understandable.

My skin started crawling with doubt. A year did seem like a very long time, especially for a manuscript the writer had once (well, twice) considered “done.” What kind of book coach works with a writer for a year—on revisions!—seemingly without getting them much closer to the finish line? Could I even tell her how much longer it was going to take? Did I even know what I was doing?

Doubt wouldn’t leave me alone. You have no business coaching writers. You should start looking for a new job. Baking bread, perhaps?

The more I thought about her situation, the worse I felt. I started having trouble sleeping. I lost my appetite. I needed to figure out what I’d done wrong, how I could make it up to this writer, and what I could do differently the next time. Not knowing how I’d failed her was driving me crazy.

Luckily, I have access to a coach of my own—a coach for book coaches— and she was very reassuring. She told me that revisions typically take three times longer than most writers initially estimate, and that doesn’t even include the time it takes for copyediting, proofreading and preparing a pitch. Revising is an iterative process, and it can take a long time to go through multiple rounds. Which is why, she said, I should have spent more time at the start of the project with the writer, developing a very clear plan and setting realistic expectations for the work that needed to be done.

Oh. Right. That made sense. I felt foolish for having missed what seemed obvious in hindsight.

For anyone who’s wondering how I could have been so clueless as to start a revision project without a plan, let me offer a brief defense. It’s not that I didn’t have any plan at all. I began with an evaluation of the manuscript and wrote a summary of what I saw as the strengths and weaknesses. The evaluation included suggestions for what could be done to improve the existing draft. The writer and I then spent several weeks discussing why she wanted to write the book, what the story was really about, what she was and wasn’t willing to do, and her level of commitment to the project. Once we had all those planning documents in place, she began the work of revising her story in 20-page increments, sending the revised pages to me for feedback.

The process seemed to be working, more or less, but in the back of my mind, I feared the small changes she was making wouldn’t be enough. We had a plan, but it wasn’t particularly strategic. (That was my biggest mistake.) I was trying to help her fix everything at once, and I was too afraid of being wrong, afraid I might make things worse if I asked her to change too much.

A few times, when I had questions about the story that would require changes to multiple scenes or chapters, I asked the writer to return to the initial planning documents to make sure the story hadn’t changed and was still on track. She wasn’t thrilled but changed the plot here and there, and then went back to revising. I continued to gently push and query and offer suggestions each week, hoping the cumulative effect of the changes would lead to a major improvement.

Unfortunately (but, in hindsight, predictably), when the major improvement didn’t materialize, both the writer and I ended up feeling frustrated and disappointed.

I think if I’d had more experience managing a revision project before I started working with this writer, I could have done a better job of coaching her. Instead, after many months of working together, I had to break the awful news that she wasn’t as close to being done as she’d hoped. It was a hard conversation to have, made even harder because we hadn’t had it sooner. If I’d helped her to prioritize the revisions—made sure she would be dealing with the major problems first, saving the smaller stuff for later, figuring out a set schedule for everything—she would have known what to expect and how much work was left to do. It wouldn’t have had to come as such a shock.

Realizing where I’d gone wrong, I wanted to go back in time and start over. I thought about quitting and referring the writer to another coach. I was at a low point and believed anyone would be better than me.

But that seemed cowardly. How could I keep telling writers that not doing everything perfectly the first time around was part of the process, if I didn’t apply that to my own work? I couldn’t allow myself to be derailed by a setback. I decided that even though I’d made a mistake, I could still try to do my best work going forward.

With help from my mentor, I pushed myself to stay in touch with the writer. We exchanged many emails and had several long conversations by phone, and that helped to clear the air. I asked if she’d be willing to re-examine the overall cause-and-effect trajectory of her story to figure out whether all the scenes she currently had in place were truly working to move the story forward, and she said yes. At my request, she sent me a 100-page document for feedback (even though our weekly max is usually 20 pages), and I spent hours working on it. We also set a target date for finishing.

To recover from the setback, I’ve devoted easily five times as many hours as I’d usually spend on a client, but it has been worth it. I can now go to sleep at night knowing I’ve done everything I could. The writer seems to have appreciated my honesty and extra effort, because she’s decided to stick with me. I’m grateful for the trust she’s placed in me and will work hard to avoid disappointing her.

No matter how good you are, as a writer or a coach, it’s unrealistic to expect your work to be flawless at all times. We’re all going to make mistakes, and we’re going to have times when we doubt ourselves and our abilities. That’s just life. But when doubt strikes, do you have a plan for dealing with it? Have you thought about how you’ll prevent a setback from kicking your legs out from under you and stopping you in your tracks?

I didn’t before, but I do now.

One Person at a Time

I have come to think, therefore, that the basic thing we must do is to stop generalizing about people. If we no longer thought of them as groups, but as individuals, we would soon find that they varied in their different groups as much as we do in our own. It seems to me quite natural to say: “I do not like John Jones.” The reasons may be many. But to say: “I do not like Catholics or Jews” is complete nonsense. . . . It is individuals we must know, not groups!

Eleanor Roosevelt, What I Hope to Leave Behind

When Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “It is individuals we must know, not groups,” she probably wasn’t thinking about how to help writers develop compelling stories. Reading that line as a book coach, though, I’m struck by the truth of it, not only as advice for combating hate and prejudice but also as a guideline for writers.

Here’s one example: I was recently asked by another coach to help with a writer who had written several passages that she feared would come across as racist. The writer had not intended to portray her protagonist as someone who was racist, but because the writing was relying on generalizations, the effect was alienating rather than compelling. The other coach and I wanted to help the writer show more of her protagonist’s inner life—specifically, what the character was thinking and recalling from past experiences. That way, readers would have a chance to understand why her character interpreted a particular situation the way she did. By avoiding the generalizations and being more specific, the writer could show us a person who had every reason to be angry and fearful. While readers might not agree with the character’s bias, they would be more likely to empathize with her.

Working with this other coach helped me as well, because coincidentally I happened to be working with a writer who had been portraying a few of the characters in her story in a way that made them seem more like caricatures than real people. I ended up giving her similar advice: dig deeper to figure out who this person is on the inside, how they think and feel. Don’t just tell me about their physical features—help me to understand why they are in the story at all, why your protagonist is affected by them. Show me the distinctive point of view they’re bringing to the story.

Photo Credit: Alan Levine

While thinking about this idea of specificity and the difference it can make in a story, I was also reading Becoming by Michelle Obama, The Leavers by Lisa Ko, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. All three of these books present a particular point of view, a window into the soul of another human being. They help us to imagine how it feels to be someone else, to exist in the world in a different way. Once I was inside their worldview, I began to understand what had previously been beyond my own frame of reference. I saw what made us different as well as what we had in common.

What I love most about being a book coach is having the opportunity to read a wide variety of stories as they are being written by a wide variety of people. I don’t mean pale imitations of stories, thin as topsoil and generic as store brands. I mean specific stories, about individuals, each one with a unique perspective and voice that’s been shaped by years of experience.

During the early stages of a draft, a scene or even a whole manuscript may come across as generic and bland. That’s because the full story isn’t on the page yet. It’s overgeneralizing, showing how anyone (“Joe Average”) would be affected by what’s happening in the moment, as if the protagonist or narrator had no unique identity, no history, no worldview, no special concerns or goals.

A generic story falls flat because it oversimplifies human experience and leaves it up to readers to fill in the blanks. It presents characters as if they were merely a collection of stereotypical traits: resentful housewife, angsty teen, weird homeschooler, dirty or ignorant [insert label here]. That can lead to a dull story or, worse, it can alienate readers who may be offended by the stereotypes. Readers may add meanings you hadn’t intended to convey.

If the problem is that the writer doesn’t know their character well enough yet, I encourage them to work on developing their character’s backstory more fully. Try to figure out what makes that person think and act the way they do. If the problem is that the writer isn’t showing everything they know to the reader, we’ll work on fleshing out the details.

When a character’s thoughts and feelings aren’t fully on the page, readers are forced to make assumptions, jump to conclusions, rely on prejudices. That’s not good, especially if the character is, well, “complicated” (someone who has been misunderstood, or who appears to be racist or cruel, for example). To be able to relate to the characters in a story—and the real human beings in our lives—we need a little help seeing the world as the controversial character sees it. Otherwise we start putting people into boxes, where they don’t belong.

Diversity Unites

A few years ago, I read Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity by Andrew Solomon. I was struck by his premise: diversity unites. He explains that parents of children who are “different” (autistic, deaf, Down syndrome, child prodigies, schizophrenic, transgender, transracial adoptees) tend to have in common the universal experience of how it feels to parent a child who is substantially different from you (and vice versa: how it feels to be the child of parents who are unlike you). Though these families couldn’t have been more different, on some level they were similar.

His book helped me to understand why, as an adoptee, I struggled to explain to my adoptive parents why being adopted wasn’t exactly the same as being born into a family. It also helped me to see how my own children, who weren’t adopted but were often asked by strangers if they were, experienced life in our small, ethnically monochromatic New England town differently than I did.

I’d worried my children might be subjected to racist attacks (my husband once having been told to “go back to China”), so I was relieved when they told me they’d rarely had to deal with people teasing or harassing them. The problem, they said, was having to feel so darn conspicuous all the time. They always stood out in a crowd while I, with my physical resemblance to all of our neighbors, blended in. I’d been oblivious to the effect that could have on a person, because I hadn’t been seeing things from their point of view.

While their father said he could relate to how that felt because he was in the same predicament, he couldn’t know exactly what it was like to be biracial. Our kids inherited their Japanese features from him, but when our eldest daughter visited Japan, she still stood out: as not-quite-Japanese. To be clear, it wasn’t just because she was an American, which is what people tend to assume. It was because she didn’t look Japanese to Japanese eyes, or at least not as Japanese as she looks to people in rural New Hampshire who always saw her as “Asian.”

As with any children who are different from their parents in a fundamental way, my children developed a worldview that was not just a combination of mine and my husband’s. They are the culmination of all their experiences, as we all are. And you may have noticed I’ve just set a bad example here, because I’ve been generalizing, too, grouping all three of my kids together as if they were one person, which of course isn’t right. Their racial make-up and hometown are insufficient—I haven’t shown you nearly enough to allow you to picture them as individuals. If I was writing a book about them, I’d have to do better.

Which brings me back to my point: specifics matter. I push writers to be specific because I want them to move away from stereotypes and reveal authentic human beings. A writer who can provide a glimpse of the world from a single, unique perspective has the power to elicit genuine empathy and understanding, one person at a time. I believe writers have an opportunity to open minds, open hearts, and perhaps even change the world for the better. My goal is to help them take full advantage of that opportunity.

What Makes a Character “Likable”?

I recently finished reading The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian, which has gotten some mixed reviews so I was interested in seeing what readers did and didn’t like about it. The protagonist in the story is an alcoholic, promiscuous flight attendant who (not surprisingly) has a history of bad decisions, broken promises and outright lies. Not exactly the sort of person I’d describe as “likable,” and yet I was drawn to this deeply flawed character and eager to find out what would happen to her.

Front Cover of The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian

I then started thinking about why I tend to like stories involving characters I probably wouldn’t want to spend time with in person. What is it about them that makes me keep reading? Why do I care about what happens in their lives?

And what if Mr. B had decided to downplay his flight attendant’s seedier side, or allowed her to make smarter decisions—would I still have been as interested in her story?

The challenge for any writer who is struggling to portray a flawed character without alienating too many readers is to figure out how to show a genuine human experience that rings true but also leaves room for empathy. On the flip side, the challenge for writers portraying a virtuous character is to balance the “good” with glimpses of the “bad.” That may sound like Writing 101 advice, but when the person you’re writing about is yourself, achieving an effective balance can be hard to do.

I once worked with a memoir writer who was reluctant to go deep and reveal her less admirable side. (I don’t mean to single her out here: who doesn’t strive to keep their imperfections covered up most of the time?) This particular writer was a warm and courageous woman who had overcome some difficult challenges, but the sanitized Pollyanna version of herself showing up on her pages was too perfect to seem real, too idealized to be interesting. Her story was falling flat and didn’t feel credible.

When I pushed her to show not only what she did well but also where she had struggled, where she had failed, what she had to overcome to succeed, she asked me, “How honest do I need to be?”

How honest do I need to be?

She wasn’t asking if she should lie—if she had, my answer would have been an emphatic “no”—but she did want to know if she could choose to omit thoughts and feelings that embarrassed her or made her uncomfortable. Why would anyone want to read about unpleasant things? she wondered. Couldn’t she just leave some stuff out and still have a good story?

“How honest should I be?” is a tough question but it’s one we ask ourselves all the time. Behind the question is the fear of not being liked. If you show your full self, or the full character in your story (or memoir), will people decide this is someone they don’t want to know?

They might. When I looked up reviews of The Flight Attendant, I noticed that among the various criticisms were complaints about the main character not being likable, and for some people that was enough reason to stop reading.

For me, though, the flight attendant in Bohjalian’s story still managed to be appealing because (in my opinion) he’d found a way to put readers inside her head and didn’t hold anything back. He showed the bad and the ugly, sure, but he also showed the good in her. He gave me an opportunity to see for myself that this character was basically kind (well, kind to animals and other people, not to herself) and well-meaning. She wanted to do the right thing but couldn’t seem to get out of her own way. Though she kept making the worst decisions, she was (as one reviewer described her) “a lovable hot mess.” I think that’s why I cheered her on, rooting for her to turn things around.

When a memoir writer tries to keep her “flaws” to herself, she prevents readers from getting to know who she really is, which makes it hard to care about what happened in her life. A character who is too perfect to seem real is too perfect to be likable or relatable. By taking a chance on being more honest, sharing her inner life more fully, the writer I worked with was able to tell a compelling story. She showed her readers why events mattered to her, why she struggled, and how she had been transformed by her experiences. By being honest and acknowledging her vulnerabilities, she became easy to love, both on the page and off.

For more on the topic of likable characters (because there’s SO much more to be written about it—I’ve only scratched the surface), check out: