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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Learning to Write XVI

There is no novel without character. You can have all of the other ingredients, plot, thematic content, pace, action, style, psychology, tension and poetry, but if your characters aren’t credible and if they don’t live with each other then you don’t have a novel.

Characters are what hold the different parts of your narrative together and they are the main ingredient for holding the attention of your reader. The reader may or may not be interested in plot, but either way the emotional link between the reader and the theme of your novel will be the characters. Consequently, it is character which is the main motivator of tension. And tension is what ensures that your reader keeps coming back for more.

When thinking about writing skills, the creation and presentation of character is of the utmost importance. Effective characters ensure some form of reader identification and tension. Ineffective characters lead to a lack of reader identification and no tension. And this amounts to a lot of words, perhaps to some kind of ‘prose poem’ but it doesn’t amount to a novel.

This being the case I intend to concentrate on characterization for the next few entries in this series. For now I shall content myself with remembering one piece of advice I was given as an apprentice writer many many years ago. Whenever you are faced with a choice between characterization and one of the other ingredients of a novel, always choose characterization. Characterization or pace. Choose characterization. Characterization or plot. Choose characterization. Characterization or action. Choose characterization.

Always choose characterization. Why? Because you can return to the text later and increase or decrease the pace, you can return later and tinker with plot or add pages of action. Most elements of the novel will allow you to come back and alter them, sometimes profoundly. But it is almost impossible to return and revive a character who was still-born.

4 Responses to “Learning to Write XVI”

  1. Lee says:

    Though I’ve not read Lessing in years, this review of her latest – and apparently characterless – novel The Cleft reminds me that we need to take all dogmas, including the writerly ones, with that proverbial pinch. Here’s the link:,,1984239,00.html

    jb says: I also have not read Lessing in years – perhaps not since The Golden Notebook. But if anyone was going to write a novel without characters or plot I would not be at all surprised if it was her – she is nothing if not courageous.
    While taking your point about dogmas, including the writerly ones, I wonder if a fairer review of The Cleft isn’t represented in Jane Cornwell’s interview of Lessing in The Australian:

    . . . when asked to what extent The Cleft harks back to her early writing on sex, on the way relations between the sexes affect every aspect of our existence, she can’t resist a dig. “I wasn’t interested in any of that,” she tsks. “You start with the characters and then the story takes over. You should know that. Like General Dann, the plot just emerged. Everyone is on the run from drought, famine, floods, civil war, war. So it was about refugees, which I didn’t realise when I was writing, even though it’s so much on our minds, isn’t it?”
    She pauses to watch her fat black-and-white cat, Yum Yum, pad across the carpet towards us. “But this one,” she adds, nodding at The Cleft, “is just speculation.”

    There is more in the interview worth reading. Not only about this book but about Lessing and her life and ideas.

  2. Lee says:

    Now I am genuinely curious about The Cleft, though to be honest, it’s quite far down on my list of reading priorities.

    jb says: I can hear what you’re saying.

  3. susangalique says:

    I do a lot of serious reading for school and such, but for fun I like the Sookie Stackhouse, Dead Until Dark books by Charlyne Harris. Sookie is for me such a strong character and the last book she seemed like a limp fish compared to the earlier books. I still liked it but in the next book I hope Sookie’s characterzation is back.

    So I totally get what your saying, even in fun books

    jb says: Hi Susangalique. Thanks for dropping by. Hey, I read your interview.

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