Historical Fiction – How “Modern” Should the Characters Be?

I’ve been living in the past lately. Why wouldn’t I, when there’s so much fabulous historical fiction around? Between The Murder Next Door, HMS Expedient and Nights at the Circus, I’ve not read anything set later than 1912 in quite a while.

Writing characters from another time can be difficult. You don’t want to take readers out of the story by having characters do or say things that are obviously anachronistic. You also don’t want readers to start hating the characters because they’ve said or done things that are completely objectionable to a modern audience (unless they’re the villain, of course).

So how modern should we make them? I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer to this question, but here are some of my thoughts. Feel free to add your own in the comments!

Modern characters in period costume

In some historical fiction, the characters act, think and talk very much like modern people. They might use the occasional old-fashioned word like “strumpet” or “consumption” but it’s just window dressing.

Is there anything wrong with this? Not necessarily. If you’re writing a fun, escapist historical romance, a lot of readers will actually be looking for 21st-century characters enjoying a modern love story, but with corsets and adorably formal language.

If you know that historical accuracy is not a priority for you or your readers, stand your ground against the purists and let your characters be as progressive, sarcastic, outspoken, sex-positive and generally “modern” as you want them to be.

Tread carefully

But what if gritty historical realism is more your style? This is where things get tricky, because you have to look at your characters through two different lenses. The first is their historical context – what were the norms of behaviour in that time and place? The second is the modern context – how will modern readers react to those behaviours?

The number one thing to be careful with is bigotry. We all know that sexist and racist attitudes were more socially accepted in the past, but be wary about how your characters express them. Some useful questions to ask yourself are:

  • Are they being hateful, or just ignorant?
  • Can their views be challenged in some way?
  • Is it necessary? Remember there are other ways of making your characters realistically flawed.

A less obvious thing that 21st-century readers often have a problem with is passivity. In our modern society, we’re brought up to think of ourselves as masters of our own destiny and act accordingly.

This wasn’t always the case, but readers often still expect characters in historical fiction to shape their own stories. Don’t expect them to empathise with a woman who meekly accepts marriage to a man she hates and doesn’t even bother to have an affair!

Character vs personality

One thing to remember when writing characters from other time periods is that different personality traits were valued at different points in history. In her rather excellent non-fiction book Quiet, Susan Cain argues that “personality” is basically a 20th-century invention.

Before most people lived in big cities and worked in sales-based economies, “character” was the order of the day, and traits such as being hard-working, honest and modest were valued.

20th century changes in how people made a living caused a shift in focus from character to personality, and people began to value flashier traits such as confidence, charm and creativity.

Don’t be afraid to write a protagonist “of good character” rather than one with “lots of personality”. Nobody reads Pride and Prejudice and says “If only Mr Darcy were more expressive and a better communicator, I’d like him so much more.”

Context is key

Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that independent female characters, powerful ethnic minority characters or happy LGBT+ characters don’t belong in historical fiction. People have always found ways to overcome societal barriers.

However, it’s important to remember that traits such as strength, power and independence look different in different contexts. Just because a 21st-century feminist is expected to be outspoken and unfiltered, that doesn’t mean an 18th-century feminist would act the same way.  

Perhaps she has to be cunning, or even sneaky, to get ahead in the world. Perhaps she has to be more flexible, or more stubborn and determined. Maybe she has to get angry, or maybe it’s vitally important that she doesn’t lose her temper. Don’t ask yourself “What would I do in that situation?”, but “What would I do if I’d grown up in that situation?”

Thanks very much for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on character in historical fiction, and I’d also love to get some hist fic recommendations!

What to Expect When Writing an “Own Voices” Story

There’s so much debate, hand-wringing, and general fuss about the phrase “own voices” that it’s easy to forget how simple and vital the central concept is. The phrase was coined by the writer Corinne Duyvis to refer to an author from a marginalised or underrepresented group, writing about their own experiences or from their own perspective.

This is a very natural thing for writers to do. We’re constantly being told to “write what you know”, and writers from a marginalised or underrepresented group have added motivation. We’re often virtually invisible in fiction. And if we’re not invisible, we’re stereotyped and misrepresented by authors who don’t share or understand our identities.

So why not tell our stories? Well, just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s easy. My YA novel Other People’s Butterflies is own voices, because the main character is aromantic-asexual, and so am I. The process of writing and publishing it has been strange, emotional, awkward, and liberating.

I’d like to share my experience of writing an own voices story, and help other writers know what to expect if they decide to do the same. I’m aware that experiences can vary wildly, so if you’ve written own voices work and had a completely different experience, please feel free to share in the comments.

Step 1: Feeling very, very naked

Writing about your own experiences puts you in a vulnerable position. You can fictionalise all you like, but it’s still your own thoughts, feelings, and perhaps life events going onto the page. This can leave you feeling very exposed.

Here’s the part where someone tells me to stop being a pussy. Because this is what writers are supposed to do, right? We use our own experiences to create stories. But when writing own voices, you’re writing about experiences that most readers won’t have had. You’re risking judgement, mockery, or the reader saying “Eh, this isn’t relatable to me, so I’ll just read something else.”

You may also be writing about parts of yourself you’ve struggled to come to terms with (a common experience for queer writers) or experiences that made you feel shitty about yourself. It can be emotionally draining.

My advice to anyone struggling with this is to remember the following things:

  • You are in control, and can share as much or as little of yourself as feels right. You owe your reader a good story and nothing else.
  • You don’t have to write in a linear fashion. If you’re struggling with a particularly dark or difficult scene, write something for a happier part of the book and go back to the difficult scene later.
  • Engage with your community. Remember that your experiences aren’t abnormal, and you aren’t alone.

Step 2: Under pressure

Writing an own voices story can be a high-pressure experience. Are you supposed to provide representation for everyone in your community? What if your representation is too simplistic? Or inadvertently promotes stereotypes? Or is just plain crappy?

My advice here is simple (some would say too simple): Reject that pressure. You can’t possibly represent everyone in a diverse community. Everyone wants a different type of representation – some want it to be wholesome and optimistic, others want it to be complex and challenging – and you can’t please them all.

Write your own story in your own style, and ignore the people who tell you it ought to be a different story in a different style. Personally, I’ve written about an aro-ace girl who makes mistakes, does bad things, and still ends up okay. I know that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I also know that some people are looking for exactly that.

Step 3: Am I “own voices” enough?

Writers have a lot to worry about while crafting a story. Is it engaging enough? Believable enough? Funny enough? But if you’re writing own voices, you may also find yourself worrying if it’s authentic enough.

Other People’s Butterflies is a novel, not a memoir. My protagonist shares my sexual/romantic orientation, but our experiences differ in multiple ways. This is the case for most own voices authors, and it can cause anxiety when there’s so much pressure to write “lived experience”.

Also, identity can be really f*cking complicated. Just ask anyone who is mixed race, has an “invisible” disability, or is in the + part of LGBT+. This can cause confusion and worry about claiming your own identity.

My advice is to be honest with yourself. Do feel you can write authentically about this topic? If there are gaps in your knowledge or experience, can you find out what you need to know in a way that supports others and doesn’t exploit them?

Step 4: Potential bullshit from publishers, agents, etc.

Lots of publishers and agents are looking for own voices work. Some (including my publisher, Art Over Chaos) go about this in a responsible way, by advertising their desire for own voices stories and striving to create an inclusive environment. Others engage in identity policing.

Rather than trusting that a story is own voices if the author says it is, they will ask intrusive questions, pressure queer authors into outing themselves, and generally demand proof of identity.

I understand why publishers do this. There are, unfortunately, some shameless con artists out there, who will do things like pretend to be a different race in an attempt to get their writing published.

Nobody wants to be taken advantage of by unethical people, but identity policing disadvantages writers in difficult or dangerous situations who are unable to be completely open about their identity. You know who it doesn’t disadvantage? Con artists. They will always find a way around it.

If you’re not comfortable with identity policing, just try to avoid publishers who engage in it. Don’t answer questions that violate your privacy or dignity. Trust your instincts and prioritise your own safety, security and wellbeing.

Step 5: Celebrate!

Despite all the difficulties of creating an own voices work, rest assured that you are doing something worthwhile. You are creating something that will make people feel seen and understood. Be proud.

Thanks for reading this longer-than-usual post. If you have any experience of writing own voices stories (even if it’s something you’re just beginning to consider) I’d love to hear about it. And if you’re a reader, please share your favourite own voices books!

Four Quick Writing Tips from “The Sense of Style”

I recently read Steven Pinker’s excellent writing guide The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. It’s aimed at non-fiction writers and I read it for my Science Communication MSc, but it also contains a lot of useful stuff for fiction writers. Here are four quick tips from the book that fellow writers might find handy…

“Beautiful” is more beautiful than “very beautiful”

When I was a teenager, I used to cram my writing full of intensifiers like “very”, “extremely” and “exceedingly” (Exceedingly was my favourite – I thought it made me sound fancy). This is an easy trap to fall into, because we can all get a little over-enthusiastic when we’re trying hard to get a point across.

The problem is that intensifiers can actually undermine the point you’re trying to make. As Pinker explains, an adjective on its own tends to be interpreted categorically. Someone is either completely honest, or not. Someone is either entirely beautiful, or not.

If you add an intensifier like “very”, you turn this all-or-nothing thinking into a spectrum. Someone might be quite beautiful, very beautiful, extremely beautiful, etc. It muddies the waters and takes away the impact of the adjective.

Save the heaviest for last

If you’re writing a list, the longest or most important word or phrase should go at the end to maximise its impact. For example, if you’re writing about a burglar who stole a bunch of things, it should be “He stole a TV, a laptop, and 2000 dollars in cash,” rather than “He stole a TV, 2000 dollars in cash, and a laptop.”

Importance should generally be prioritised over length. For example, “He stole a TV, 2000 dollars in cash, and a baby” is better than “He stole a TV, a baby, and 2000 dollars in cash.”

Watch out for zombies!

Before reading this book, I’d never heard of a “zombie noun”, and probably used them without meaning to. It’s a noun that’s derived from a verb, such as “make an appearance” (derived from “appear”) or “put on a performance” (derived from “perform”).

When a verb gets turned into a noun, it becomes lifeless and zombiefied (yes, that’s a word). Too many zombie nouns will make your writing sound stuffy, so it’s best to avoid them.

Learn the rules, then go ahead and break them

One thing I enjoyed about Pinker’s style guide was its impatience with grammar Nazis and language purists. We’ve all been annoyed by seeing “your” and “you’re” used interchangeably for the millionth time, but someone who acts like their world is falling apart every time someone makes a small error really needs to get a life.

The book argues that language is constantly evolving. If a word or phrase is used “incorrectly” by 90% of the population, and has been used by respected writers, there’s not much point in labelling it “incorrect”.

Also, (whisper it) there are more important things than grammar. If a woman prefers the term “chairperson” to “chairman” or a non-binary person uses singular “they”, it’s a dick move to insist that the rules of grammar are more important than equality or identity.

I hope you found these tips helpful. Got any quick tips of your own? Please share them in the comments!

How to Make “Bad” Characters Likeable

Badness isn’t fashionable these days. When I was growing up (way back in the 00s), being rebellious and cynical was all the rage and giving a f*ck about other people’s feelings was not. But now we’re expected to be respectful of everyone, channel our anger into political action instead of kicking dustbins, and buy exactly the right brand of fairtrade, organic quinoa.  

The trend for antiheroes also seems to have come to an end and I can’t help but feel it ended too soon. Maybe that’s because of a personal preference for flawed characters, or maybe it’s because the majority of those antiheroes were straight, white men. If you ask me, characters who are female, POC or LGBT+ haven’t had a fair shake at being bad.

Since “unproblematic” has become the ultimate compliment, I was a little worried about the protagonist of my upcoming novel, Other People’s Butterflies. She does stuff that’s not just morally questionable, but unquestionably bad. But so far, the feedback I’ve had about her has been positive. So here are my tips for writing a character who’s kind of shitty but also likeable.

Consider writing in first person

If you don’t see the thoughts and feelings behind bad behaviour, people will interpret it in their own way. And that interpretation is likely to be something like “She did an awful thing because she’s awful.”

If you write in first person, the reader becomes almost complicit when the protagonist does bad things and has a better understanding of why they are behaving that way. If you don’t want to write in first person, you could always try “deep third” – where you write in third person but still get right inside the character’s head.

Some sins are more forgivable than others

Forget everything you learnt at Sunday school, because when it comes to fiction, we’re pretty f*cked up. If you ask readers about the characters they hate and why they hate them, you’re unlikely to hear “I hate this murderer because he murdered loads of people.” You’re more likely to hear complaints about arrogance, constant whining or being a spoilt brat.

That’s because, for most of us, shocking crimes aren’t a part of our daily reality. Violence is something we see on telly and we’re mostly desensitised to it. But we often have to deal with entitled arseholes, closet misogynists and two-faced liars.

Because we have real world experience of how it feels to deal with this kind of behaviour, we’re often unforgiving of it. So basically, it’s easier to make a violent criminal likeable than a douchey dudebro or gossipy bitch.

Persuade the reader

A way of making a bad character more engaging is to make them difficult to argue with. Give them a reason for bad behaviour that, logically speaking, makes sense. Or, even if it doesn’t make sense, you could still have them express themselves so eloquently that it seems to make sense.

The latter is particularly powerful when crafting interesting villains. There’s nothing like knowing in your gut that a character is wrong, but being unable to explain why.

Seduce the reader

I’m not saying you should make bad characters gorgeous (though it’s surprising how many awful male characters get a “hot guy pass”). I’m saying you should recognise that we all have urges that are selfish, greedy or spiteful, and seeing a fictional character give in to those urges can be cathartic. So much so, that it often makes us feel like we’re on their side.

This is pretty much the opposite of the previous technique. Rather than having a character tell the reader, “My behaviour might seem bad, but here’s why it’s actually good from my perspective”, you’re having them say “Yeah, I know I’m doing something bad, but admit it … you want to do the same thing.”

Relatability is key with this technique, and this is a reason to show bad behaviour that kicks up instead of down. A character getting revenge on their awful boss? Pretty relatable. A character firing an annoying employee on a whim? Less relatable because, well, lots of us don’t have employees.

“Pet the dog”

This is a term coined by screenwriters that means showing a supposedly nasty character doing something kind. It softens their edges and shows that, hey, they’re not a total arsehole after all! Simple but effective.

A crappy childhood doesn’t make a supervillain

If your “bad” character grew up in an abusive home, or was badly bullied, or suffered a huge loss, this can act as motivation for bad behaviour. But don’t rely too much on sympathy. Plenty of people get bullied, abused or bereaved without becoming horrible people.

Go for empathy rather than sympathy. Show how your character goes from feeling bad to doing bad things, rather than just emphasising how bad he feels. That way, you’re explaining his behaviour rather than excusing it. You’re helping the reader understand, rather than just telling her “You should feel sorry for this character, not hate him.”

Thanks for reading my tips on how to make “bad” characters more likeable. Do you have any of your own to add? And who are your favourite fictional baddies?

When to Get Inside a Character’s Head (and When to Avoid It)

One of the best things about writing is that it gives you an opportunity to explore the world from different perspectives. Getting inside the minds of your characters can lead to a richer understanding of what it’s like to be someone else, living in a different place or time or body.

And sometimes, a character’s mind is just a fun place to be. Many writers have that one character who’s a particular joy to write (for me, it’s Mitch from The Misfortunes of Oscar Goldberg. Basically, the inside of his mind looks like The Lego Movie) so why not escape into someone else’s brain for a while?

But sometimes, even when writing in first person, it’s more effective to take a step back and focus on a character’s actions or surroundings rather than their thoughts and feelings. So when should you get inside a character’s head? Here are some thoughts on when to do it and when to avoid it.

Do it

To generate empathy. Characters don’t always have to be likeable, but readers should be able to empathise with them to some extent, and get a sense of why they do the things they do. 

If your protagonist makes some pretty questionable decisions, it’s important to show the thought processes, feelings and backstory behind those decisions. In the case of an antagonist, getting inside her head can make her more of a complex adversary and less of a pantomime villain who does bad things because she’s bad.

When most of the action is inside your character’s head. There are plenty of brilliant novels where not much happens at all. Classics like Pride and Prejudice (about a man changing his manners and a woman changing her mind) prove that you don’t need car chases or sword fights to create a thrilling story.

But if it’s light on action, there needs to be a lot going on behind your characters’ eyes and your readers need to know about it. The emotional drama needn’t be overwrought and soap opera-ish, but it should be complex and sincerely felt.

When someone is in an unusual situation. Sometimes, a character gets into a situation that isn’t easy for a reader to relate to. This is particularly common in Fantasy and Sci-Fi. When weird shit hits the fan, a reader might not know how to react. Is this a dangerous situation? A whimsical detour?

You can give the reader cues through tone and pacing, but one of the most effective ways of helping a reader relate to a weird situation is by getting inside the character’s head and showing what they think and feel about it.

To show that a character’s mind works differently. If your character has an IQ of 152 or 45, his thought patterns may differ significantly from the average reader’s. The same is true of characters with other kinds of neurodivergence like autism, ADHD, or mental illness.

If a reader only sees the character’s behaviour, they may find it difficult to relate to. But give them a chance to see inside the character’s mind and they are much more likely to understand. If you’re writing about someone different to you, remember to do your research!

Avoid it

When a character needs to keep a secret from the reader. Sometimes, to avoid spoiling plot twists, your character needs to keep things hidden. In a murder mystery, for example, your character might figure out whodunnit some time before it’s revealed to the reader.

In this type of situation, it’s important not to spend too much time inside a character’s head. It’s just not realistic to have a character with a huge secret who never thinks about it.

During action-heavy scenes. If there’s a lot of action going on, cutting away from it to explore a character’s mental or emotional reactions can be distracting and slow the pace.

 This doesn’t mean action scenes can’t be emotional – many of the best ones are intensely emotional. But it’s best to keep the emotions of an action scene simple and primal, e.g. shock, fear or rage. Hold off on exploring a character’s more complex reactions until the aftermath.

When you want a character to remain ambiguous. Mysterious characters are great for keeping readers on their toes. If you want an aspect of a character – their morals, their loyalties, their past – to remain shadowy, it’s best not to spend too much time inside their head.

I hope these tips were useful. As always, feel free to add your own!

Should I Make My Characters Cry?

Why is crying such a big deal? If a fictional character laughs, chances are the reader will barely notice it. But when it comes to crying, readers have all sorts of opinions. I’ve heard everything from “It’s annoying” to “A protagonist should never cry in the first half of the book” to “It’s good because it normalises expressing emotions.”

So I’ve been thinking about the pros and cons of having characters burst into tears…

Crying baby

Pros

It can generate empathy. The most obvious advantage to having a character cry is that when it’s done well, the reader will feel every ounce of that character’s sadness, grief, frustration or hopelessness.

It can be cathartic. I recently read Stake Sauce by RoAnna Sylver. Don’t be fooled by the pun-tastic title – it’s an emotionally intense book. When the protagonist (who is bereaved and struggling with PTSD) finally had a good cry, it was such a relief. If your character goes through a lot, and negative emotions are allowed to build and build until the dam breaks and leaves them sobbing, the reader can often find this cathartic.

It can be good for character. People cry differently, and this is a great way of exploring character. Some things to think about include:-

  • What makes them cry? Do they have to be extremely sad? Do they cry when moved, e.g. by beautiful music? Is there one particular thing that’s guaranteed to set them off?
  • Who do they cry with? Do they only ever cry when they’re alone, or would they cry in front of friends?
  • How do they cry? Do they try desperately to hold the tears back, or do they just let go? Do they cry like a Hollywood starlet or have a proper ugly-cry? Are they one of those unnerving people who can turn the tears on and off at will?

Cons

It can come across as melodramatic. If a character cries often, or over things that aren’t particularly tragic or moving, the emotion can seemed forced. It’s a clear way of telling the reader “You should feel sad/moved at this point” but nobody likes being told how to feel, especially if they don’t feel that way.

 It can make a character seem weak. I hate this one because there’s nothing weak about crying. A few tears never stopped anyone getting shit done, but unfortunately we’re often brought up to think of crying as a sign of weakness. Readers may have a low tolerance for excessive vulnerability, especially in male characters. Which brings us nicely onto…

Gender-based bollocks. This is a phrase I find myself using often, so I’m going to shorten it to GBB. One of the most common complaints about women writing male characters is that women write men as too sensitive. If they cry often, or without the embarrassment around tears that men are brought up with, it can seem unrealistic.  That’s not to say that a female character can get away with crying over every little thing. She’ll risk readers seeing her as hysterical, or not up to the tasks facing her in the narrative.

So what do you think? Do your characters keep a stiff upper lip, or are you one of those meanies who loves to make your characters cry?

Write Like An Animal: Five Reasons To Write From An Animal’s Perspective

 

I don’t consider myself an animal lover. Sure, some of them are beautiful and all of them are fascinating. But mosquitoes spread malaria, swans are vicious bastards and a donkey once bit me. I’ll never be a person who goes gooey over everything with more than two legs.

But when it comes to books written from an animal’s perspective, I can’t get enough of them. From The Call of the Wild to Fantastic Mr Fox, I find they can do things that books written from a human perspective can’t quite manage. Here are my top five reasons to try writing from an animal’s perspective.

Wolf

  1. Animals are ideal observers

If you’re looking for a narrator who can observe human drama without getting caught up in it, an animal is ideal. Small or domesticated animals can get into the most exclusive of spaces unseen or unnoticed.

It’s no coincidence that many animal narrators are dogs. Their lives are so intertwined with those of their human owners that if they could talk, all sorts of secrets would probably come spilling out.

  1. They can evoke more sympathy than humans

I’m currently working on a novel in which the main character’s pet rabbit meets an untimely end. The same is true of several human characters but I’m most worried about reader reactions to the bunny. People are notoriously sentimental about animals and writers have even received death threats because they’ve treated their animal characters badly.

But a skilful writer can turn this to her advantage. It’s often easier to make someone care about an animal than a human, so put an animal protagonist – especially a small, relatively helpless one – in just the right amount of peril and readers will be hooked.

  1. Animal protagonists can highlight the strangeness of human behaviour

Humans are weird. Who better to point this out than an animal? This can be done for comedic effect – think Angela Carter’s Puss in Boots being amused by human shyness about nudity – or it can be used to make a serious point. Which leads us nicely onto…

  1. Animals are great for social satire

What better way to deliver biting social commentary than in a charming story about animals? It certainly worked for George Orwell’s Animal Farm – an allegory for the Russian revolution and the Stalinist era of the Soviet Union.

It also works for more gentle satire like The Wind in the Willows, which is ostensibly about a mole, a rat, a badger and a toad, but is actually about a bunch of middle class Englishmen trying to curb the excesses of their upper class friend.

  1. You can explore the relationships between animals and humans

We humans have a pretty bizarre relationship with animals. We love them, fear them, eat them, consider them part of the family or pests to be eradicated. We have so many strong emotions about animals, and an animal protagonist is an ideal way of exploring these.

A good portrayal of a loving, mutually beneficial relationship between human and animal can be profoundly moving. But if you want to tell a darker story, there are plenty of exploitative relationships and predator/prey dynamics to explore. Can you imagine what it’s like to be hunted or farmed for meat? That’s some proper horror novel stuff.

So, would you ever write from an animal’s perspective? And what is your favourite book with an animal protagonist?

Five Tips for Writing a “Retelling” of a Classic

Classic novels

Several years ago, I had a brilliant idea. I was going to write a modern-day retelling of my favourite Jane Austen novel, Northanger Abbey. It would be YA of course, since the protagonist, Catherine Morland, is only 17. It would be full of mystery and romance and would probably become a bestseller.

Just after finishing the first draft, I discovered that the famous crime writer Val McDermid had already done exactly that. Damn. But it just goes to show – everyone loves a modern retelling of a classic.

It combines familiarity with novelty, allowing us to experience well-loved characters and plots in a new and intriguing way. If you’re interested in writing your own retelling of a classic, here are my five top tips…

  1. Choose wisely

Learn from my mistake! If you’re planning on publishing, you need to make sure you’re not writing a retelling that’s already been retold a hundred times. Instead of choosing a very well-known novel like Pride and Prejudice, or a familiar fairy tale like Cinderella, why not go for something a little more niche?

You could try a less well-known work by a famous author – perhaps one that has never been adapted for TV or film. Or how about a quirky folk tale instead of something that’s already been tackled by Disney?

If you’re going to retell something well-known, you’ll need to do something extra special to help it stand out. Don’t forget, you’re basically writing fanfiction (I’m not being snobby. Fanfic is great, it’s just that it’s usually written for free!) so to impress a publisher or agent, you’ll need to do something very new and original with the story.

  1. Don’t do too much “fixing”

Sometimes, with modern retellings or adaptations, I get the impression that the writer has said to herself “People who don’t know any better think the original is a timeless masterpiece. But it’s actually got a lot of shitty parts and I’m going to fix them all.”

Don’t get me wrong here – I’m not a purist, and writers should never be a slave to canon. There’s nothing wrong with tweaking timelines, exploring events that happen “off the page”, fleshing out minor characters or pushing others into the background.

But remember that your readers are likely to be people who like, or love, the original. You have to remain true to the spirit of the book, and major changes to the storyline – for example, making the heroine end up with a different love interest because you always thought he was way sexier – is guaranteed to piss off your readers.

  1. Don’t be too smug about being from the 21st century

In some of the old classics, much of the drama and conflict comes from social rules and restrictions that don’t seem to apply to 21st century western society. When a working class lad suffers the consequences of trying to rise above his station, or a young lady is ruined after a seduction, it can be tempting to dismiss this as irrelevant to modern audiences.

But the attitude of “None of that stuff happens now, so I’ll just ignore that part” leads to missed opportunities. Yes, things have improved for a lot of people. But women still get shamed for being sexually active, and kids from council estates still face huge barriers to career success.

The old rules and prejudices are still there, under the surface – they’re just expressed in a more subtle form. And social scandal is very much present in the digital age! With a little tweaking, even seemingly dated parts of a story can become relevant.

  1. Character is timeless

Characters are so often the reason that readers fall in love with a book, and it’s important that the main characters in your story are recognisable descendants of their original counterparts. You can change the time and place they’re living in, change their job, appearance, race or gender. But you should never lose sight of their core personality traits.

If you have a soft spot for a particular character, it might be tempting to iron out their flaws or change their more questionable decisions. There may even be legitimate reasons for this (If Jane Eyre were written for a modern audience, people might not be so keen on Mr Rochester keeping his mentally ill first wife hidden in an attic).

But once again, it’s important not to do too much fixing. Genuinely flawed characters are enduring because readers have related to them and learnt from them for centuries. And let’s face it, perfectly-behaved characters are often dull as dishwater.

  1. Include plenty of treats for hardcore fans

Some readers of a retelling will only have a vague awareness of the original work. But other readers will be superfans who know it inside out, and are likely to demand a little more bang for their buck.

Rather than just writing your own story that vaguely sticks to the plot of the original, try to include references to less well-known parts of the story, such as minor characters and subplots. This means there are plenty of in-jokes to entertain readers who are well-acquainted with the original.

However, it’s important to strike a balance and not go too far in the other direction. If every single sentence is a nod to something in the original work, it’s likely to be incomprehensible to those who haven’t read it.

 

Those are my five top tips for writing a retelling of a classic – feel free to add your own tips in the comments.

 

Four Ways of Cannibalising Your Own Work

Hannibal

It’s a harsh fact of the writing life that many perfectly good pieces won’t get published. No amount of editing, tweaking and polishing will make an agent or publisher want to pounce. What should you do with these pieces? Let them gather dust and weep bitter tears of frustration over them every so often? Totally valid choice.

But you could always cannibalise them. This means taking the material that works, and using it to create something new. Here are four ideas for how to do this…

Pick an old piece and do the cringe test

Feeling brave? Find a really old piece. Maybe even something you wrote while you were still at school. Now read it, and discard all the parts that make you cringe. Consider what’s left over. Even inexperienced writers can have great ideas, and there could be something here that you can use as a promising starting point for a new piece.

Choose a different perspective

Sometimes it’s good to look at a narrative through the eyes of a character other than your protagonist. What do things look like from the antagonist’s perspective? How about a relatively minor character? Are any of these viewpoints worth exploring?

You might even come to realise that a different character was the “secret protagonist” all along. This happens when you feel under pressure to write a protagonist who is like you (e.g. the same gender, age, etc.) or a protagonist who fits the mould of a traditional hero. But you may find there is a “background” character who you relate to more strongly.

Blend two pieces together

When combining two or more pieces, I recommend just going absolutely nuts and figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Here are some ideas to try:

  • Blend two poems together to create an unholy super-poem.
  • Write crossover fanfiction of your own work, and let characters from vastly different worlds interact.
  • Combine the setting of one fictional piece with the storyline of another.
  • Take a subplot from one story and see if it works in a different one.

Ask “What happens next?”

This can work particularly well with short stories. Sometimes the ending of a short story is actually just the ending of chapter 1 of a novel. Ask yourself whether the protagonist has unfinished business, or whether certain events in the story would have set other things in motion.

A word of caution, though – be wary of creating stories with too many climaxes (yes, such a thing exists, believe it or not) or twists. This can lessen the impact for the reader, causing them to lose interest.

Have fun!

There’s really no point in being precious about work that hasn’t sold. There’s also no point in being embarrassed about it – a lack of publication doesn’t mean a lack of merit. Make sure you have a back-up copy, and then do whatever the hell you like with it. You have nothing to lose, and could end up creating something fantastic.

Have you ever tried any of these techniques? Do you have any others you’d recommend?

When is it Okay to Write Passive Characters?

As writers, we are constantly being told to write characters who are active, not passive. Our protagonists should be men and women of action, who make decisions and drive the plot forward. Is there any room for more passive characters? I’m going to argue that there is, in certain situations.

When your character’s main role is to observe

There are plenty of great books out there with remarkably passive protagonists. Often, these books are loved because the role of the main character isn’t to drive the plot forward, but to observe and reflect on their surroundings in a way that is fascinating, entertaining or terrifying.

A prime example would be the character Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale. She doesn’t really do much, but that isn’t the point of her. She is our eyes and ears in a dystopian world. If she were busily making plans about how to escape the repressive regime, she would be less likely to notice and record its myriad horrors.

When it’s done for comedic effect

Sometimes, a helpless, passive character can be really funny. When your protagonist is placed in a completely crazy situation and can’t do anything about it, this can be a rich source of comedy.

The key here is to make it relatable. We all have times in our lives when we feel helpless in the face of someone or something more powerful, and your character’s situation should reflect this. A good example is the unfortunate Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, having to deal with alien beaurocracy.

This technique works well with characters who you might expect to be powerful in everyday life. If your helpless character is a tall, posh, white guy full of impotent rage, that’s a lot more funny than an oppressed minority in the same situation. (If you’re a tall, posh, white guy who’s offended by this, go watch Fawlty Towers and tell me you’re honestly not laughing at Basil).

When your character is getting used to a new world

This is something to bear in mind when writing Fantasy, but also when writing any kind of “fish out of water” story where your protagonist is placed into a new and unexpected situation.

When Harry Potter first enters the Wizarding world, he doesn’t start raising an army against Voldemort straight away. Partly because he’s eleven, but partly because he’s been thrust into a strange new world and needs some time to get used to it. So does the reader.

It’s also unrealistic if a character enters a new world and becomes a master or mistress of it straight away. And if they refuse to watch and learn from other characters who know the terrain, they’ll come across as arrogant.

When their passivity is its own kind of strength

N.B. SPOILERS for Little Women.

Sometimes life sucks and there’s nothing you can do about it. Someone who chooses to accept this with grace and dignity can actually be a profoundly strong character.

Take the terminally ill Beth in Little Women, who spends her final days knitting and sewing and making beautiful things, resolutely unafraid of death. She’s a far cry from her active, headstrong sister Jo. But in her own, quiet way, she is the strongest of all the March sisters.

Times to avoid passive characters

Though passive characters definitely have their place in fiction, there are pitfalls to avoid. One is when a protagonist is passive at the climax of the story. Generally speaking, a character should become more active as the story progresses. If the climax happens without them having to do anything, this will feel like a cop-out.

Another thing to avoid is using gender to justify passivity. You might be tempted to write passive female characters for historical fiction in the name of “historical accuracy” but that won’t fly with publishers, or readers. Also, have you read Jane Austen? Women in ye olden days may not have been CEOs, but they had a million different ways of taking control of their lives.

Finally, if your protagonist is going to be passive, make sure they aren’t whiny. Someone who is constantly complaining about their lot but not taking steps to change it will quickly drive the reader mad.

What do you think of passive protagonists? Do you find them annoying, interesting, or a bit of both? Would you ever write a passive protagonist? Please share your thoughts in the comments!