#78: How Much Should Your Research Show?

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m in the planning phases of a time travel short story, and I find myself wondering how much research is too much. What’s a good way to find the line between authenticity and overdoing it?

—ASB (he/him)

Dear ASB,

There are two people for whom research might be “too much”: you, and your reader. For you, it’s too much if it prevents you from writing, or if your investment in research outweighs its return. For your reader, it’s too much if it it prevents them from enjoying the story.

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#43: Describing Your Viewpoint Character

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m currently writing a story in first person POV and I’m finding it extremely difficult to describe my main character because of it. What are some strategies for getting across character description to the audience in a way that is not cliche?

—Noelle (she/her)

Dear Noelle,

This is a delicious technical question that I’m very happy to sink my teeth into. First-person POV can be a lot of fun but it also definitely presents some challenges, and one of those is conveying who’s speaking without a clunky or clichéd paragraph of self-description.

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#40: When to Kill a Character

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m writing again on my fantasy novel! Your advice about one of my other characters gave some great ideas about making her more proactive. This time I’m writing because I’m seriously thinking I need to axe a character.

I love her character and especially her backstory. I do have a bit of a hard time with her voice, but that’s something I think I could strengthen in revisions.

I’ve toyed with cutting her before, and it’s come up again now that I’m writing an Important Scene for her arc (a Setback). I just can’t make the dramatic tension come together. And when I look back and compare her arc to the other characters’ arcs, it’s much more reactive and plot-driven and contains less actual growth/change. She’s mainly a helping character, and I already have another character whose plot role is largely thwarting/helping the main characters—and the other character gets more character growth out of it. As I conceive of her character now, her character arc occurred more in her past, and now she’s at the place where the other characters are moving toward.

She serves a function in the plot of getting a character from place to place, and she serves as a POV character particularly in a location where none of the other POV characters are. She also is the primary worker of magic in the novel, and without her there’s very little of it (which may be fine, it would just change things). I think I could work around her plot/POV functions by moving other characters and possibly not showing some of these events on screen at all.

And if I do decide to axe her, how on earth do I tackle that? I’m still finishing up the draft. Do you think it makes sense to go forward as if she’s not a character or sort of minimize the whole thing and tackle all of it in revisions?

So I guess I have a two-part question:
1) How do you decide whether to axe characters?
2) If I do axe her, how do I approach the final drafting and then the daunting task of revising her out of the story?

—chocolate tort (she/her)

Dear chocolate tort,

Nice to hear from you again! I’m glad my earlier advice was helpful.

This time around you’ve sent me a classic advice-column letter of the “Should I break up with my partner?” variety. The answer is almost always yes, because by the time you reach the point of writing to an advice columnist, you’ve probably made up your mind to do the deed, and are just looking for external confirmation. I note that you didn’t ask me anything like “How can I keep this character while fixing the problems she creates?”; you went straight for “If I remove her from the book, how do I do it?” This is something like saying “Should I dump my girlfriend, and if I do, do you think email or a text is better?”

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#31: The Myth of the Everyperson

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m about to start writing the next volume of a fantasy series and find myself-second-guessing my choice of 1st person protagonist. In the usual way of fantasy novels, all of my previous protagonists (multiple per book) have been exceptional in some way: magical talents, physical skills, social status, etc. Because I want to write a wide diversity of characters, for this one I deliberately designed a character who is not “special”. A young working-class woman with no magical talents, no money, limited economic expectations, and only tentative aspirations with regard to the skill she has her sights on (dressmaking). But she gets drawn into adventures because of the friends she makes and because she chooses to support the skills and aspirations of those friends with her own more everyday abilities. (The book is planned to be YA.)

That circle of friends is itself fairly diverse, including people with physical disability, marginalized ethnic and religious background, trans identity, as well as some with more privileged backgrounds. But now I’m second-guessing the reasons I chose a “default settings” protagonist. (She’s lesbian, but in my series that pretty much counts as a default character setting, though it does make her life more precarious.)

I keep thinking of stories I’ve read or viewed where my reaction was, “Why wasn’t this the black girl’s story—she’s the more interesting character? Why doesn’t the disabled character get to be the hero?” And yet, as the story is designed, all those other characters intersect the story and are brought together through her. Her story arc is to learn how to value her friendships for what they are, and not in how they relate to her, and to choose to support those friends in their triumphs specifically because they have talents she lacks, rather than choosing the path of self-benefit. (I know this is sort of vague without giving the whole plot.)

Am I overthinking this? Can an everywoman of a poor non-magical queer white laundry maid be a worthy protagonist?

—heatherrosejones (she/her)

Dear heatherrosejones,

You’ve actually got two questions here, cleverly disguised as one. The first is whether an ordinary person—in the sense of non-extraordinary, someone lacking in special powers or status—can be a successful protagonist. The second is whether a “default settings” person, someone who is not significantly marginalized in their setting, can be a successful protagonist. The answer to both questions is yes. You just have to pick the right kind of story for her, and understand who you’re telling that story for.

1. Ordinary protagonists

Off the top of my head, here’s a short list of positive, inspiring media that center ordinary people:

  • The song “Somebody Will” by Sassafrass
  • Tamora Pierce’s Protector of the Small series of books
  • Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
  • Sesame Street
  • Bob Ross’s painting videos
  • Jane Austen’s novels
  • This video from Full Frontal with Samantha Bee of interviews with civil rights activists

Stories about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things are escapist fantasies: “Wouldn’t it be cool if my life were like that?” Stories about ordinary people doing ordinary (but still important and valuable) things are very different. They encourage us to think, “I can do that right now.”

The television shows I mentioned basically teach that message over and over and over. You can manage your feelings! You can learn to count! You can paint! And gradually viewers absorb the greater lesson: whatever it is you think you can’t do, you probably actually can.

Austen’s novels have a more specific focus: even if you think you can’t find love, you probably actually can. And the activists and “Somebody Will” say that even if you think you can’t contribute significantly to efforts to make the world better, you probably actually can. And Pierce’s books, like your story, say that even if you think you can’t have adventures because you’re too ordinary, you probably actually can. But the gist is the same.

So let’s recast your story in those terms:

Her story arc is to learn how to value her friendships for what they are, and not in how they relate to her, and to choose to support those friends in their triumphs specifically because they have talents she lacks, rather than choosing the path of self-benefit.

That sounds to me like “Even if you think you can’t be a good friend without uncomfortable amounts of self-sacrifice or self-denial, you probably actually can.” And that’s a lesson many people could stand to learn, especially many people who, like your protagonist, are marginalized in some ways but privileged in others, and are trying to figure out how to balance what they need (or feel they are owed) with what they can give.

You’re absolutely right that many stories with ordinary protagonists also have boring protagonists, but that’s a story craft issue. We’re swimming in the narrative conceit that what makes extraordinary characters interesting is their extraordinariness and what makes protagonists interesting is that they’re protagonists. Stories built on those premises tend to keep the action and adventure coming so quickly that they can kind of get away with it for a bit. (They also tend to have sequels that fall flat as pancakes because the initial excitement has worn off and readers realize there was nothing underneath it.) So if you take away the crutch of extraordinariness, many writers fail to realize that they now have to put in actual protagonist character development work to compensate.

Meanwhile, those same writers put significant effort into building up side characters because they’re more aware that side characters can’t just skate by on their extraordinariness. Side characters also often get moral complexity than the protagonist does, especially in heroic tales where the protagonist is the embodiment of goodness, and they provide conversational foils, dispensing both banter and wisdom. And if they’re more marginalized than the protagonist is, they have more real-world problems to contend with, making them more relatable to readers. Naturally, these complicated, sympathetic, well-developed characters steal every scene.

To avoid this trap, take the time to figure out what makes your protagonist interesting, to herself and to the people around her, and to learn the Mister Rogers lesson that characters can make their stories special just by being their unique selves. Think about the people in your life with whom you can happily talk for hours and never feel bored. How do they hold your interest? What makes you want to hang out with them over and over again? Use that knowledge to help your readers feel just as good about spending hours of reading time with your protagonist. And make sure you spend just as much time developing her depth and complexity as you do for any of her companions, and give her plenty of opportunities to make mistakes, wrestle with her conscience, and support other characters on their own journeys.

2. “Default settings” protagonists

You’re also right that many (many) (so many) stories fall into the trap of considering someone with tremendous social privilege to be a protagonist whom of course all readers will be able to relate to, while relegating marginalized characters to narrative support roles because they would be “unrelatable” in the central role. (“I can’t relate to this character” is a phrase often used by privileged editors and readers to reject work featuring marginalized protagonists, even though marginalized readers are expected to force themselves to relate to privileged protagonists.) To some extent, you’ve fallen into that trap too, awkwardly stretching the term everywoman to cover both the ways your character is marginalized and the ways that she’s privileged. Is she an everywoman because she’s poor and queer and low-status and therefore overlooked by the elite, or because she’s white and able-bodied and therefore the narrative default? Rather than trying to thread that needle, I recommend ditching the label altogether. No one is actually an everywoman, and you will do your story and your readers a much greater service by focusing on her as a complete and unique person.

With regard to having a protagonist who’s privileged in some respects, you’ve already taken steps in the right direction by constructing your story around her learning to genuinely value the marginalized people she knows rather than treating them as objects. Now you just have to make sure the narrative also doesn’t treat those people as objects for her to learn important life lessons from.

There’s nothing morally wrong with having a white protagonist, but you have to put some work into making her a protagonist worth reading. Some starting points:

  • Give her a distinct identity, rather than leaving her whiteness as an unmarked state. (Both those links are to posts by the marvelous and insightful Mary Anne Mohanraj. I highly recommend reading them in full.)
  • Describe her and other white characters in similar ways to how you describe nonwhite characters. If you mention race for some people, mention it for everyone.
  • Don’t define the character’s attractiveness in terms of her pale skin, light-colored eyes, or other attributes linked with whiteness. If a particular other character is attracted to her because of those qualities, be careful to distinguish that from a narrative opinion that those qualities are inherently attractive.
  • Be aware of ethnic distinctions as well as racial ones, and how identities and labels change from one situation to another. For example, someone who’s seen as white in America might be regarded as Italian in Europe and Calabrian in Italy—none of which tells you how they think of themself (which may also change depending on the situation they’re in).
  • Avoid the many clichés of white exceptionalism, such as the white savior, the white anti-racist activist who helps nonwhite people realize how oppressed they are, or the white ruler over a nation of nonwhite people. If your story looks like a million anonymous brown arms reaching out for one named blond lady, something is awry.

Likewise, for an abled protagonist:

  • Give her an explicit relationship with her embodied self. The biggest cliché of the able body and brain is that they just work; the protagonist never encounters a burden they can’t lift or forgets important information. But in reality, everyone is conscious to some degree of being embodied, and everyone encounters situations that they’re not equipped for. Showing how your protagonist works around those situations can be great for character development.
  • Mention her physical and cognitive reactions to everyday situations such as not getting enough sleep or food, being startled, catching a cold, or having period cramps. Or, since she’s a poor working-class woman and probably has never gotten enough sleep or food, mention her physical and cognitive reactions to finally having a good meal or a full night’s rest, if the narrative allows her to have those things.
  • Mention her sensory reactions to the world around her.
  • Don’t use temporary injury or disability as a plot device that affects nothing else in the character’s life and magically gets better as soon as it’s no longer needed for plot reasons.
  • Make her skills and abilities appropriate for her age and lifestyle. There’s a fine line to walk here, because one person’s “that’s unrealistic” is another person’s “that sounds just like my grandma,” but in general, any skill or ability she has should have at least a scrap of attached backstory explaining how she acquired it (for your reference even if it doesn’t make it into the narrative), and any new thing she attempts should have a learning curve. Also, expending much more effort than usual should leave her tired and sore, and her vulnerability to ailments and recovery time from exertion should be increased by age, illness, malnourishment, or chronic exhaustion.

And in general:

  • If your character is aware of her privilege in certain areas, give her complex and plausible reactions to it, especially if she’s marginalized in other ways. Don’t make her a mouthpiece for endless platitudes about the importance of allyship, and be very wary of centering her story around her political awakening, which can easily turn into an exceptionalism narrative (especially if the less privileged people around her disproportionately admire or reward her awareness).
  • Regardless of whether she’s aware of her privilege, the narrative should be, and the marginalized people around her should be.
  • Her setting, whether real-world or created, should incorporate diversity of all sorts from the ground up. If it’s not, its homogeneity should clearly be due to overt or covert actions taken by one group to exclude other groups. Women-only colleges exist, but not by happenstance. Many of those colleges have majority-white student bodies, which is also not by happenstance.

Most importantly, she needs to be a real, multifaceted person. Just as you can’t assume that the protagonist is interesting by virtue of being the protagonist, you can’t assume that privileged people are interesting by virtue of being privileged. So in the end, there’s one answer to both your questions: yes, any fully developed character can be a protagonist in a story that’s written with care.

Happy writing!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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#30: Whose Story Is It Anyway?

Dear Story Nurse,

I am a mostly-fan sometimes-original fiction author who generally has a clear idea about plot and story beats and so on, but an issue with an unfinished NaNo project has me a bit stumped. It’s original fiction, a time-travel transhumanist romance between characters whose first names conveniently start with A, B, and C.

For the first part of the story, our point-of-view character is B, a female graduate student who has been sent to the distant past and who hooks up with A, a man of some privilege there. She makes a copy of his brain pattern on her computer (with his consent) and returns to C, her genderqueer ex, who helps her load up A’s mind on a computer. Eventually, A will be restored to a physical form with science magic and they will all live happily ever after together, but before I can write that I have to figure out a very basic question: Whose point of view do I write the next section of the story in?

I’ve written everything so far from B’s POV and I intended to write the rest of the story that way, but there’s a lot going on between A and C that she won’t be witness to. On the other hand, it could be that all of C’s diagnostics aren’t actually interesting or relevant to the story. I’d almost decided to write the next section in A’s POV, but something inside me is rebelling!

What can I do to narrow down my options and figure out why I am hesitant to commit to an actor for my next few thousand words?

Thank you!

—Aris Merquoni (she/her)

Dear Aris Merquoni,

Questions about point of view are really questions about what story you’re telling. If you’re not sure whether to switch POV, you may not be sure what your story is. Is it B’s story, or is it A, B, and C’s story?

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#28: “Am I Busy or Avoidant?”

Dear Story Nurse,

I am in the midst of a year in which mostly-familial requirements on my time make it something like impossible for me to make my slow-but-steady former progress on my novel, for now. (I had chugged along to slightly over the halfway point.)

At least, I think so. The requirements on my time, energies, and attention are genuine, and the nature of the attention required results in my being bored, which for me doesn’t mix well with writing. But am I being avoidant, or is it really all The Year of Hockey and Real Estate?

—I serve the ice (they/them)

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#27: Ethics in Fiction Writing

This question came from the priority request queue for $2+ Patreon patrons. Thanks for your support, letter writer!

Dear Story Nurse,

Let’s say I made a boo-boo in one of my previous stories, and I handled a sensitive subject a bit badly. Not super badly, but I relied on overused tropes because I didn’t realize how overused (and damaging) they were. Now I know better, and I’m planning to write a sequel to the story where I messed up. Is there anything special I should do in the sequel to sort of “make up” for the mistake and build that trust back with my readership? Or should I just focus on not making it again?

Sincerely,

Really Very Sorry

Dear Really Very Sorry,

This is a very kind question. I’m glad you understood where critiques were coming from, took them to heart, and have been working on doing better. Those are the essential things you need to be doing, and to keep doing.

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#26: Maintaining Story Momentum

Dear Story Nurse,

You mentioned in #22, Passion Projects and Practice Projects, that you felt plotting was one of your weak points. I wondered if you had any anecdotes on how you work to overcome this and any advice for the bare bones of creating a plot that keeps moving?

I’ve been told that my writing is best when it focuses on characters and my most successful stories have been tight 1,000 word flash fiction competitions with a time limit of a weekend. I seem to be able to craft memorable moments and interactions pretty solidly. When it comes to working on bigger projects I tend to get stuck because I don’t know how to turn a solid character-based idea or series of moments into a plot that moves along.

It’s not that I don’t have ideas for plots, and I have two longer stories I’ve stalled at. One is a horror story at maybe 4,000 words that is effectively a possession story, but with a past life rather than a demon. The second is a novella or novel length story with an English-village-comedy genre about a flower seller who gets an unusual side job that lands her in trouble.

They have a goal and end point and characters that have good voices and interactions. They have (I hope) decent enough concepts and opening paragraphs to hook in a reader for the ride, but it’s how to add in the turns and beats you need with the plot that trips me up every time until my anxiety makes me freeze up.

In the past I’ve tried the Stephen King approach of ambling without much direction until a plot happens, which didn’t help. When it comes to the opposite approach of plotting in detail I often feel lost as how to begin but for “Start. Middle. End. Some sort of drama somewhere.”

Any advice is much appreciated!

All the best,

Leanne (she/her)

Dear Leanne,

This is a great question and one that a lot of people struggle with (definitely including me!). You ask for the bones of plot, but it sounds like you already have those: start, middle, end, some drama. What you need are the muscles and tendons of plot, the pull and thrust and tension that turns a skeleton into something that moves and breathes.

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#25: Story Ending Choice Paralysis

Dear Story Nurse,

How distinct do a writer’s stories need to be from one another?

A lot of authors have recurring themes, or recycle small details like names, or set several stories in the same universe.

But what about if it’s bigger things? If it’s a single change in how the physics of the world works, either way allowing for interesting and distinct things to happen. If it’s alternate endings to a story that could both work, or different story structures that could both fit the one plot.

Sometimes one version is clearly superior, but often not. It just splits off into a separate (but not entirely distinctive) story of its own.

I write science fiction, and short fiction—it’s very idea driven, I think that contributes to this problem. It feels like I have not so much a bunch of separate stories as a story/idea space, where story particles combine and mutate and split off in endless ways.

I find it very difficult to finish a story (instead spawning five new potential ones when I try).

My main concern is getting better at completing stories, but also is it unprofessional to send out stories for publication if they are similar to other stories I’ve written?

—Hydra wrangler (she/her)

Dear Hydra wrangler,

It sounds like you have two very different concerns that are all tangled up together. One is a commercial concern about how it looks to an editor or a reader if you have multiple very similar stories. The other is a craft concern about choosing from among multiple good ways to finish a particular story or develop a particular concept. In some ways these are the same concern: you do writing one way, and you think you should maybe do it a different way.

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#24: Semicolon Surgery

Dear Story Nurse,

I don’t know if this is too much of a generalized craft question—I am currently working on a short story of about 10k words, but I have problems with this in general.

I use too many semicolons.

I use them correctly, and I am very good at them, but they show up in too many of my sentences and it’s frustrating from a rhythmic perspective. I want to make sure the two clauses are part of the same sentence because the staccato of a period doesn’t seem right and changes the way the story feels when it’s read aloud, but the repetition of the structure gets boring to read.

Here are some from the last story I wrote:
  • She was sweating nervously; the effort of trying to keep her composure was nearly too much.
  • The way he looked at her made her uneasy; there was a sort of intensity to him that she hadn’t quite prepared herself for.
  • The man kept walking; she wondered if she had the wrong man.

Do you have suggestions for other basic sentence structures that work well and can be used as stand-in for the typical two-independent-but-related-clauses-joined-by-a-semicolon construction that aren’t just to replace the semicolon with a period?

Thank you so much! (I say as I realize I have written this entire inquiry without a semicolon in sight.)

—Independent Clause (use whichever pronouns you feel like today)

Dear Independent Clause,

This is a wonderful craft question. As you’ve guessed, since you’re asking for other sentence structures, the punctuation mark itself isn’t the issue. I love semicolons; they’re great. The issue is what you’re doing with language and content that leads to the use of so many of them.

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