Why We Don’t Write Real Characters

You know how to develop characters. They have a past, a desire, a fear, a quirk. They are thrown into the crucible, and they change. They grow.

I know all this, too. I’ve read the how-to’s, and I’ve read the books where authors got it right, and I’ve practiced in my own writing. I’ve completed five novellas and cast several others aside in the middle of a first draft.

I’m about to release my third novella, The Trade. As followers of my blog know, I’ve quit writing fiction, but I decided to publish The Trade because my critique group and beta readers already put in so much work. It seemed silly and ungrateful of me to let it sit in my computer forever. A proof copy is on its way to me now.

And I’m not happy with it.

But why?

Yesterday I asked my Facebook friends what they liked to read. My sister mentioned that she liked books that make her laugh or cry—feel something. In that moment I realized what was wrong with my books, and I realized why I had the problem I did. What was wrong was that my characters weren’t real, and the two reasons that they weren’t real are deep, dark secrets. But I’m willing to share my deep, dark secrets because I learned from Oprah that if one person has a deep, dark secret, many others have it, too. Maybe ruminating on my epiphany can pull you out of the cookie-cutter character pit.

Deep Dark Secret Number One 

I got scared when people analyzed me based on my characters.

When I finished the first draft of my first attempt at a novel, I let several friends and relatives read it. The main character was, like me, a musician. Her biggest flaw was that she didn’t think she needed to be forgiven for anything. (Side note: This was long before a certain president announced the same.) When my mother-in-law read Ocean Floor, she commented “She’s you, isn’t she.” I was taken aback. Did my mother-in-law think that I thought I was perfect?

I chalked this up to irritating mothers-in-law and wrote on. Much later, I wrote the first few chapters of a book about four friends, one of whom hated that she had to accept charity from the others and had a lazy, lie-about husband. I gave the chapters to my mom, who said “This made me so sad!” She wasn’t sad because my storytelling ability overwhelmed her but because she was sure I felt like the charity-case woman. In addition, my husband (who’s been employed full-time our entire 21 years together) asked if the lazy husband was based on him. I stopped writing that book.

When I wrote Anaheim Tales, the twenty characters were described shallowly by design, but in every other story I wrote, my characters became better-written and less real. My writing didn’t even need a line editor anymore, but no one cared about my characters. Including me. I care about the Jeba I envisioned before I began writing The Trade, but I don’t give a fig about the Jeba who ended up on the page. The Jeba on the page hides her most real parts so that I can hide mine, too. And she hides her most real parts so that I don’t have to hear my family wonder “Does she think that, too?”

In essence, one reason we don’t write real characters is that we’re afraid to.

Deep Dark Secret Number Two

I stopped thinking real was real. 

When my dad beta-read Littlefoot Part One, he made the most surprising comment I’ve yet heard from one of my beta readers. He said that he didn’t think the man who ends up with Littlefoot was good enough for her. Usually when my beta readers make a comment, I think, “Yeah, I was afraid of that.” But this time I was floored. This time was the one analyzing myself based on my characters. Did I not understand human relationships?

I added an endearing sentence about the man and put the book on Kindle.

And maybe I don’t understand human relationships. Around the time I quit writing fiction, I was discovering that people I thought I knew voted for someone indefensible. I was left questioning my judgement about people, aloof, and too pessimistic to write close relationships. I’ve always thought it was irresponsible to depress the hell out of your readers, so I didn’t write anything. No one can ever be understood. Why should a fictional character be understandable then, or even tolerable?

I loved the Jeba who lived before I began typing, but is she even possible? If I faced my fear of being judged by her grittiest inner thoughts and made her more real, would she be real even then?

A second reason we don’t write real characters is that “real” is still not real.

Maybe this is why my roommate in college only read nonfiction. I still cherish the novels I loved in my youth, but my quest to write a novel for someone else to cherish may be over. If your quest for the same isn’t over, I hope that something here knocked your thoughts onto a tangential and helpful track. Keep me posted.



Things I Learned When I Decided to Write a Novel

As I format my next novel for CreateSpace and prepare to take an indefinite break from novel-writing, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned in the last eight years.

1. People will think you’re writing about yourself no matter how many times you say “It’s fiction.”

2. The rule about getting rid of any unnecessary words can be taken too far.

3. Maybe Nicholas Sparks isn’t so bad after all.

4. Critique groups are a Godsend.

5. Finishing a manuscript isn’t actually that difficult.

6. Rewriting is actually that difficult.

7. Just because your friends who said they wanted to read your manuscript never get around to it doesn’t mean they don’t love you. At least, that’s what you have to tell yourself if you don’t want to cry all the time.

8. Facial expressions are impossible to describe.

9. John Gardner and Sol Stein are the best at writing about writing.

10. Agents are stupid anyway.

11. CreateSpace is awesome.

12. CreateSpace doesn’t put writing on the spine in books under 131 pages.

13. The local bookstore doesn’t sell books with no name on the spine.

14. Just because your friends don’t buy your book doesn’t mean they don’t love you. At least, that’s what you have to tell yourself if you don’t want to kill yourself.

15. It’s neat to hold your own book.


On Giving Up

Writers have a social media community. We’re all friends with other writers, and we all encourage each other with daily mantras like “The world needs your novel,” and “You have a unique voice,” and “Harry Potter was rejected 37 times.”

I’ve been writing for eight years or so, and the last year I’ve also had a jazz group for girls. I’ve been posting about the lack of women in jazz, and while some people seem as concerned about the situation as I am, my class has not grown, and I’ve had few volunteers to help me teach. I have only sold a handful of novels despite regular social media posts (and social ones, too, not just sales pitches) and today my proposal for a grant for the jazz class was rejected.

It turns out the world does not need my novels. People keep saying “Write because you love it!” and the truth is that I don’t love it anymore. I’m tired of writing to myself. I don’t care what anyone says, we don’t write for ourselves. We write because we want to touch others or to be known as a great writer, or at least to make a damned dollar. I have spent thousands and thousands of hours writing and reading about writing, and for what?

I’m done. I’m done writing, and I’m done sharing people’s books who do not share mine, and I’m done thinking “This contest win will convince people to buy a book!” And while I’m keeping my jazz class until it dwindles to nothing, I’m not writing any more grants or passing out any more flyers. I’m not asking for any more volunteers, and I’m not making any more videos about how I hate the blues scale. The world does not need my novel, or it would shell out 99 cents. Apparently my contribution to this world is not the next great novel, and that’s okay.

And apparently the world does not need my jazz instruction either.

I’m done.

For now.

Writing the Denouement

The first few novellas I attempted to write had abrupt endings. Apparently I thought that a reader who was left with a moment of high drama or a new concept to chew on would close my book (or turn off their Kindle) and spend the next 24 hours mulling over the new and amazing ideas I’d sparked with my magnificent story.

Then I realized one of the reasons for the denouement. For the purposes of this blog, we’ll define denouement as everything that happens after the climax. At least for modern readers, life moves too fast for them to close a book, close their eyes, and let their thoughts roam. They are called to their text messages or chauffeuring their kid to karate class. After a reader finds out what happened, and the story is all wrapped up, they need time to digest the story. And they will take the time if there are more words for them to look at.

My thought, and this may change with more experience of course, is that it hardly matters what happens during the denouement. In fact, I think as little as possible should be introduced to the reader at this time. Vocabulary should be chosen purposefully to foster a general feeling, but mostly you are providing time for your readers to have their own thoughts about your characters, and indeed, their own lives.

I’m trying to teach myself, here. Everything I write is too short. So let’s do an assignment together. Find three of your favorite novels. Find the moment when the climactic action is over, and count how many pages are left. How does this number compare to the total page count of the book? What does the author say during the denouement? Tell me your findings in the comments.

On Writer’s Block

One of the questions that comes up most often from writers is “How do you get over writer’s block?” I’ve heard many answers to this, but here’s mine:

Writer’s block does not exist.

I’m talking here to fiction writers especially. When I worked for an SEO company and had to find a 25th thing to say about house painting or asbestos removal on a tight deadline, yes I hit a wall. There’s really only so much to say about asbestos and its natural state and its uses and its dangers and its removal.

But when it comes to writing fiction, I truly believe that there is no such thing as writer’s block. So let’s talk about two situations in which you might think “I have writer’s block.”

When You’re Starting a New Project

Two issues you might have before starting a project are too many ideas and not enough ideas. With too many ideas, you might be afraid you won’t start “the right one.” It’s not like deciding to have a baby, friends. If you get more excited about another one in a few days, you can switch. Flip a coin. You don’t have writer’s block.

If you have no ideas, what works for me is watching a super creative movie at night (some suggestions are Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and the 2014 version of The Little Prince) and then letting my mind wander as I’m lying in bed. Your creativity is not gone, you are stifling it. Don’t think “what will work for a plot” (unless that’s what works for you), let your mind wander. What is the most fantastic thing that your subconscious mind wants to take you to?

By the way, it’s okay to be in this stage where you let the thoughts swirl around in your brain. That’s not writer’s block, that’s part of writing.

In the Middle of a Book

Maybe your “writer’s block” happened in mid book. You just don’t know what to write next. Again I say, this is not writer’s block. This is part of writing. You are figuring out what to write next. What you write next will affect countless parts of your storyline later in the book, and your brain is doing an amazing job sorting all that out. It’s probably figuring out plot and character points that you aren’t even consciously aware of. You are not blocked, you are thinking.

Sometimes this part of writing might involve getting a fellow writer’s input. Sometimes it might involve more researching online about something your character is interested in—be it astronomy or feng shui—than actual writing time.

If you’ve gone a month or so with no perceptible progress, it might be time to either work on something else for a while or, as I do, force yourself to write something even if it’s bad. I have almost never had to delete what I’ve forced myself to write. It usually gets me going again and I’m back on track.

Say it with me. Writer’s block does not exist.

Happy writing!

M.L. Millard




Writing Groups: Better Than Astroturfing

I’m probably the last person in the world to find out about the social media term “astroturfing.” Basically, it means a fake grassroots campaign. In the writer world, it would mean paying a company to put fake comments, likes, and reviews on your page from multiple accounts.

I belong to Redwood Writers, a 300-member branch of the California Writers Club. Our motto is “Writers Helping Writers,” and true to our motto, we have a free newsletter where members can make announcements, monthly meetings with informative speakers, critique groups, contests, and more. Everyone is supportive, and the super successful members are generous with their ideas and encouragement.

But I think one thing we could be doing to help each other more is following each other on Facebook and Twitter and liking each other’s posts. I realize that we don’t want to share too much or our friends will get tired of it and unfollow us. But it only takes a second to hit “like” and maybe five seconds to say, “This book looks so good,” or “Can’t wait to read this.” More likes and comments make us look more attractive to the non-writer audience.

We’re always asking each other for Amazon reviews, and reviews are golden but it takes a lot of time and sometimes money to read a book and write a review. Social media astroturfing (though it’s not really astroturfing because our support is real) is something we can do for each other so easily. And it’s all legal and legit!

My Twitter handle is @MLMillardauthor. If you leave your handle in the comments, I promise to follow you and give you at least a “like” when you come across my screen.

Much love,

M.L. Millard

Writing and Self Publishing a Book in 5 Difficult Steps

Recently I saw a blog about publishing that had the phrase “easy steps” in the title. I didn’t read it, but I can only assume that somewhere in there the writer admitted that “easy” was a joke.

No matter how you break them into small steps, very few parts of writing and publishing a book are easy. Here are the five essential, difficult steps.

1. Read The Art of Fiction by John Gardner and writing books by Sol Stein.

You will have less editing to do later if you read these books first. Sol Stein writes very clearly about tagging (he said, she said), plotting, and other nuts and bolts technique, and John Gardner talks about the deepest questions of character and storytelling. One thing that sticks with me from The Art of Fiction is to remember that some of your readers might be contemplating suicide, and you shouldn’t push them toward it.

There are thousands of writing books that you don’t need to bother with if you read these two. Okay, this step was relatively easy, but the rest are difficult.

2. Write.

Duh. I would tell you how to write, but I don’t have to because you already did step one. Right?

3. Find a critique group.

How can I say this delicately? Actually, I don’t have to. You do. Find a way to delicately decline being in writing groups with members who write terribly or sit around and complain more than they critique. The other members of my group were too weak to do so, and here I am in a group of people who are all more experienced than me. Ha ha.

4. Listen to your critique group.

They are probably right. Especially if you did step 3 properly. If you didn’t do step 3 properly, you’ll be left wondering whether to make the changes they suggest. I rarely have to say, “No, I’m sure it’s right,” because my group rocks. It’s always difficult to accept critique, but it won’t be as difficult with a good group. This step is otherwise known as “rewrite,” but nobody likes to hear that word.

5. Put your book on CreateSpace. (It’s free!)

Some people would pay to get their book edited before putting it on CreateSpace. That’s a great idea, but I didn’t have the money. Some people hire a cover artist. Also a great idea, and I also didn’t have the money. (I did use a very generous photographer friend for a couple of my covers.) So do those things if you want, and then take advantage of the free help from the CreateSpace staff to get your book formatted and up for sale. Three tips for formatting the paperback version: Use mirror margins, use page breaks at the end of a chapter, and do whatever you need to do with font size, margins, and blank pages in order to get your book over 131 pages. If it’s under 131, you can’t put writing on the spine and bookstores won’t sell it.

Happy writing! I have spent several years fine tuning this list. Please share if you found it helpful!

M.L. Millard