Ahead of his thriller debut, novelist John Niven pulls on a pair of leather gloves and salutes fiction’s greatest serial killers
Murder. We’ve all done it. Writers that is. Ever since man first gathered round the campfire to swap stories, narrators have known that someone getting bumped off at the right moment raises the stakes and keeps people on their toes.
Having written four novels in the vein of what could be loosely described as ‘black comedy’, I am publishing my first ‘straight’ thriller this month. Cold Hands is a revenge story set in snowy Canada. It’s about a man whose past catches up with him in the bloodiest way possible. When I first pitched the book to my agent, she said, “That’s marvellous. Like Titus Andronicus meets Misery.” Nicely put, I thought – Shakespeare’s most violent play meets Stephen King’s tensest novel.
Of course, I make no claims for the book being as good as either of those, but her comparison got me thinking about how long readers have been in thrall to characters with blood on their hands. So here are 10 of my favourites…
Since I think it’s usually best to learn by analysis and example, I decided to share this. Plus, it’s rather interesting. To read the article in full, click the header!
Is it normal for me to be nervous about including a few characters that are not like me: I am a straight white woman, but two of my secondary characters are in a lesbian relationship, and another character is black, and I’m nervous about displaying them adequately. Because I don’t want to…
1. Eliminate unnecessary modifiers. When I say unnecessary modifiers, I’m talking about both “weasel” words that lessen the impact of your prose and useless modifiers that emphasize for no reason. Words like possibly, simply, really, totally, very, supposedly, seriously, terribly, allegedly, utterly, sort of, kind of, usually, extremely, almost, mostly, practically, probably, and quite. Why write “It was quite hot out that day” or “It was extremely hot that day” when the sentence “It was hot that day” accomplishes the same thing? The more clutter you can get rid of, the better your sentences will be.
2. Eliminate clichés. What’s a cliché? A cliché is any phrase so commonplace the reader speeds right past it without even realizing they’ve done so. The metaphor is wasted. When you say someone’s scraping the bottom of the barrel, do you actually picture someone scraping the bottom of a barrel? When someone’s monkeying around or driving like a maniac, do you actually think of monkeys or drooling lunatics? Better to have plain, unadorned prose than prose filled with clichés. This doesn’t mean you need to strike out every last familiar phrase from your manuscript; you just need to be conscious of what each word in your story is doing. Microsoft Word’s grammar checker has a helpful feature that will automatically underline clichés with a green squiggly line. Give it a try.
3. Eliminate repeated words and phrases. I’m not just talking about redundant phrases that are redundant. In going through my book, I discovered my characters were rasping things every two pages. A certain character was constantly described as panther-like. And every time people stopped to think, they would “fold their arms before their chest” or “roll their eyes.” Use your word processor’s search function to hunt these repeated phrases down, and then use the thesaurus to find replacements. They don’t have to be fancy words, just different ones. My rule of thumb is that really striking words shouldn’t be repeated at all within the same chapter, and only repeated a few times in the same book. For more common words and phrases, just make sure they’re not repeated too close together.
4. Search for extraneous thats and hads. Perhaps this is just a shortcoming of my own prose, but I’ve noticed that I tend to stick in way too many thats and hads. Quick example: “He had been talking about how he had needed to get new glasses” could be phrased better as “He talked about how he needed new glasses,” or even “He talked about needing new glasses.” That often sneaks in between clauses in a sentence when it’s not really needed. “I knew that I was robbed” can be tweaked down to “I knew I was robbed.” (Often this is a function of choosing a better tense; see #9 below.)
5. Straighten out your mixed metaphors. Jumbling metaphors together in a big stew of words is my Achilles’ heel. I actually like the effect that comes from clobbering the reader with a smorgasbord of different metaphors. But you have to know when to stick to your guns and when to cool it. If you’re riddled with doubt about a particular sentence, try treating every word absolutely literally to see if the sentence pans out. Make sure you’re conscious of every metaphor in your prose; they shouldn’t slip in there unbidden.
6. Look up any word you’re not positive you know. I don’t care if that word only has one syllable and your eight-year-old kid uses it every day. You absolutely need to know what every word in your story means (and you need to make sure you’ve spelled it correctly). There are free online dictionaries aplenty, not to mention Google, so you have no excuse for using words improperly.
7. Use that thesaurus. Some writing experts will tell you the thesaurus is a dangerous tool. Phooey. Find a thesaurus you’re comfortable with, whether it be paper-based or CD-based or online-based, and use that sucker. That doesn’t mean you need to start throwing obscure words into the text where they don’t belong; as a general rule, you should only use words you were already familiar with anyway. (See #6 above.) If you’re writing about a baseball game, your players can’t always throw the ball every time. They need to toss, hurl, lob, pitch, fling, and even fire off that ball too. Once in a while, they might actually catapult, flick, or chuck it.
8. When in doubt, try the Delete key. Sometimes I’ll find myself stuck on a particular sentence I can’t quite wrestle into submission. I’ll scan through the thesaurus, I’ll rearrange the words half a dozen different ways, and it still doesn’t work. Then I’ll just start hitting the delete button and suddenly, like magic, the whole thing comes together. Don’t get so attached to any particular piece of prose that you’re blinded to its shortcomings. Sometimes the perfect sentence can be used in the wrong place, and you need to be able to slice it out if necessary.
9. Try changing tenses. It’s very easy to slip into certain tenses that needlessly complicate your prose. Tenses like the past progressive (“I was doing something”) and the present perfect (“He has done this forever”) tend to get very confusing very quickly. You can’t always avoid the more complicated tenses, but the less you use of them the better. See if you can switch the scene/sentence/paragraph to simple past instead (“I did something”). Consult this handy Verb Tense Chart from the Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Perfect example: the original version of the first sentence on this page. Originally it read, “Having just completed revising the manuscript for my second novel, I’ve got line editing on the brain at the moment.”
10. Rewrite, rephrase, reconfigure. Unfortunately, despite the Romantic picture many of us have of the writing process, prose does not just flow down from the Muse and magically burst through your fingertips. Even the best artists need to constantly rework and revise what they’ve written. It’s work. Of course, for most of us writers it’s fun work. But just because you’re an artist doesn’t mean that you don’t have to worry about your craft. Piano players practice scales, painters make preliminary sketches, and writers go through lots of drafts. That’s just how the process works. If you want to know the most important lesson I’ve learned about making art, it’s this: the stuff that looks the easiest is usually the hardest to pull off. Jackson Pollock? Raymond Carver? Ernest Hemingway? Andy Warhol? These dudes worked their asses off to put together works of art that look effortless.
Wanting OTP to be sweet, kind to each other, to cuddle, and whisper love words - being at the border of tears instead because of all the drama going on, all because you’re way too much in character. Yet you don’t hold back and relax things a bit, you just keep rping that way, being even more accurate with your character’s personality if possible.
Being ic hurts, it hurts so much some times /cry
submitted by sweethoshi
Characters are hard. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that I’ve stopped in the middle of writing and questioned myself about my characters. Are they too unrealistic? What is their motivation? Do I really know them as well as I should?
I have found that it helps to think about characters as real people. Imagine or write scenes for them that have absolutely nothing to do with your story. Here are some good prompts for scenes to help you get to know your characters:
Chapter 2 - Character: Casting Shadows. (Part 3.)
Think about people you know. Some may be patient, but have a drinking problem. Your best friend may be cold, blunt and outspoken when you go out to the bar, but will stop to pet rabbits at the park.
Your cousin may be brilliant, hard working and funny at work, but selfish and confrontational at home.
Contrast adds another layer of depth to your character cake.
Asked by Anonymous
This is regarding the post about male friendships: I am completely aware of this, but I would like to make note of two things I’ve seen in my years as both a roleplayer and a writer.
1. Many male friendships do have at least some of these structures noted in this article. I’ve personally have been part of Friday Night Football and other things of the sort, and can see hierarchies that are formed within friend groups. I’m not saying that this applies to all male friends nor am I saying that none of it can apply to female friend groups, but it’s not completely untrue.
2. From my time in role playing, I’ve seen people play male-male relationships as either extremely competitive or as gay. I don’t know why, but seeing a functioning, equally beneficial friendships between men is rare. I just thought that that post would help those who wanted to improve their writing of these relationships.
There can be a bromance!
jewishpopcorn asked: Any ideas about writing a deep sense of camaraderie between characters without seeming gay? I’m hoping the bond to be similar to the bond between Holmes and Watson, Lennie and George, and other famous brothers in bond. Thank you for any advice you can give!
We’d like to begin by quoting John Green: “Books belong to their readers.”
If your readership sees a homoerotic connection between two male characters (famously the case in modern Sherlock Holmes adaptations between Sherlock and Watson), then there is very little than you can do about it. You can recognize that your audience may see homosexual attraction where none was initially intended and embrace it with humorous asides and a certain amount of ambiguity or you can ignore the subject altogether.
If you don’t write them to be attracted to each other, they won’t be. That is, until the fan fiction authors get ahold of your narrative. By that time, it’ll be out of your hands.
However, you can start by writing a believable male friendship. The examples below, of course, are not true of all male friendships, but they represent a good starting point.
- Have clear boundaries. There are entire websites dedicated to the rules men create for their friendships. Men like rules, and with those rules come boundaries that are unique to each friendship. Most men prefer not to show emotions like sadness around their friends; some men have little to no physical contact. Regardless, men tend to come to a wordless agreement on their boundaries and stick to them.
- Have rituals. From secret handshakes to elaborate initiation processes, men spend time cultivating rituals together to strengthen their bond. Fraternities are famous for their rituals, but, on a much smaller scale, one-to-one male friendships tend to have norms and rituals (like inside jokes repeated ad nauseum) that are nuanced and extremely specific.
- Have structured times to meet. Men hang out in structured settings, such as a Friday night poker game or D&D games every Sunday. Men meet to watch their favorite sports teams play. They may spend time together outside of these structured meetings as well, but these structured “play dates” are a staple in male friendships.
- Have priority. A very strong friendship among men will take priority over nearly everything else. It is said that “a good friend will bail you out of jail; a great friend will be in that jail cell beside you”. Men will drop what they are doing to come to the aid of their friends, and they will endanger themselves to protect their friendships.
- Have hierarchies. In a group of male friends, as with a pack of wolves, there is always an alpha, a leader. Among two males in a friendship, one will inevitably have more control than the other. This may be in a constant state of flux, or remain pretty stagnant over the course of the friendship.
- Feign dislike. This is not as common, but a kind of feigned disdain from one man to another has been observed in many male friendships. In these sorts of relationships, it is usually obvious to both men that the dislike is not genuine, though to the outside world the relationship may seem hateful or even abusive. Most of the time, it is understood between the two men that the disdainful man is incapable or unwilling to show true affection, and so the disdain true meaning is the exactly opposite of what the outside world perceives.
- Fulfill an emotional need. Men are not made of stone. A strong friendship between males is essential for their happiness. Men need someone to talk to, someone who listens, someone to call their girlfriend and explain that they’re too drunk to drive home. It is especially important for men to have strong male friendships when they are in relationships, as the male counterpart provides advice and comfort (and common sense) in a way that no significant other ever could.
- Center around action over conversation. Men prefer activities over conversation. As previously mentioned, hanging out for males usually involves some sort of game or a goal to be reached. Men are much less likely than women to sit around talking about their private lives and their feelings. If they’re going to gossip, they can do it while actively engaged, like while throwing a baseball or rolling the dice, or swinging a sword, if at all.
Just to reiterate, these examples are not law. They are simply a starting place from which to build believable male friendships.
For more on male friendships, check out these articles:
- The History and Nature of Man Friendships
- Friendship for Guys (No Tears!)
- ‘I Love You, Man’ and the rules of male friendship
- Male Friendship
- Understanding Male Friendship
- Straight male friendship, now with more cuddling
Thank you for your question!
We´ve long ago given up on trying to give a name to whatever relationship is going on between our characters. They’re not a pairing, because despite people’s insistence and our own personal crack-ish muses (they’re male and female), they have no romantic feelings for each other whatsoever, and they’re not best friends either because no healthy friendship should ever involve trying to get each other to blow up so much. Either way, they enjoy pissing each other off as much as they also enjoy tagteaming into submission anything that threatens their other, and it’s hilarious to write, and life is good.