Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Difference Between Character and Personality by Teresa Kennedy

One of the most interesting new wrinkles in the world of writing and publishing in these days of hyper-marketing and social media is that every writer, at every stage of his/her career, is suddenly expected to become a marketing expert. They have to have extensive FB pages, both for themselves and their books--likes and shares ad infinitum; tweets and Riffles and Pinterests and tumblrs, links and friends with people they barely know. They are expected to be involved, more or less constantly, in the business of making themselves, as opposed to their books,  a celebrity of sorts.

They must walk the fine line between honestly promoting their titles, blogs and other works; actually being social, and spamming.  They are also expected to respond, buy, celebrate and review their fellow authors’ works. They must build a platform of online presence and further support that presence through virtual blog tours, book signings, giveaways, comments and all the attendant merchandising efforts.  Developing the knack of “relating” to the sheer numbers of people with similar interests and products to sell can really ratchet up the average author’s anxiety levels, not to mention that all the networking can make a serious dent in the hours they spend on actual writing.

It’s because we have become a culture of personality, as opposed to a culture of character.

The media makes celebrities of personalities—the TV preacher with the huge following; the teen god or goddess gone wild, the pregnant Princess or the fallen “star”.  We become obsessed, sometimes unpleasantly so, with what these public personalities look like without makeup; who they slept with, or why they should never appear in public in a bikini. Some may call it a guilty pleasure, some may deny the impulse to point and click, but we all do it, and it’s all too easy to do it, given the sheer amounts of information coming at us on a daily basis.

To exacerbate the problem, the current construct of independent publishing insists on unrelenting productivity. The more copies you sell, the more you books you produce, the bigger your platform, the greater your chances for success.

While it might be argued that this approach only serves to reinforce the corporate model of success (Write Bigger! Write Faster! Write More!)  formed by the megapublishers the indie was only trying to avoid in the first place, the irony of the independent author’s current job description  goes deeper, if only because writing== good writing anyhow== demands an entirely different skill set.

I won’t venture to speculate on just what personality type is best suited to the task. Writers come in as many shapes, sizes, personalities and ambitions as the rest of the population. Some are natural extroverts, some are introverts; some see their book as the ultimate marketing tool to building an even bigger platform, bestseller status and even celebrity; some just need the money. Some hate networking; some love it. Some genuinely want to share their stories, and some just want to write their books and be left the hell alone to do that.

What I do know, however, is that the construction of a story requires more from an author than being marketable, and in that sense, the task of marketing begins long before a book is released. A writer has to be willing to step back from his public personality and be willing to embrace the relative isolation, emotional distance and creative free time involved in the creation of character.

 The concept of character, as it exists in the novel, is the painstaking process of creating a whole person, not just a personality.  Traditionally, a protagonist demands more depth from an author than mere description. Real characters are never based on a mere collection of attributes; what they wear, or who they’re sleeping with, or how they look in a bikini, but rather on the traits and values that define that person. What are their virtues—integrity, loyalty, curiosity, courage in the face of adversity? What are their flaws--naivete, cowardice, dishonesty, compromising their truth to fit in? All of those qualities may, or may not, emerge in the course of your novel, but if you’re too busy social networking and comparing your characters  to those in books already written, or yakking about their wardrobe, or what kind of car they drive, it’s not going to make a big impression. Though you may raise your stats becoming an online personality, readers demand more of writers and the books that they buy.

An author must find a way to construct character by trait, as opposed to outward appearances and labels. Real characters leap out on the page in full, living color. They interact with the twists and turns of your plot because they are living through it. And so the reader’s interest in an excess of detail about their age, wardrobe, body type, job description or whether they had plastic surgery, is bound to wane when the book they are reading has no more substance than an online slide show.

Equally, they become less concerned about plot if your plot is not something that happens to character but you have a character that “happens” to the plot. And if, as a writer, you hope to steer a mere personality through a pre-constructed, formula plot, rest assured, neither is going to emerge as remarkable. Much less, marketable.

If the online network demands that we all become “personalities” in order to market effectively, the writer’s task demands more depth. Good books and real characters offer readers a glimpse of who we are as human beings—brilliant, flawed, stubborn, heroic and faithful. Self-serving, cowardly, driven by passions we can’t always control. We try, but fail; and we often succeed. A novelist’s characters must journey through a story of extreme circumstances and come out better people for having made that journey. True character is always in search of more than a neat and tidy plot resolution. Memorable characters at least, are seeking their truest identity. And readers will celebrate their struggles, no matter how big your online personality. Because that’s why readers read stories—to learn something about how to navigate our lives that the culture of personality or celebrity fails to offer.

Friday, February 22, 2013

So You Want to Write a Bestseller by Teresa Kennedy

Aspiring authors are always looking for the next right thing—the hottest new trend. They read voraciously, pouring over the latest blogs and the buzzing new titles, trying to discover what other writers, agents and publishing experts may know that they don’t. 

But despite all the great advice out there, and despite also what the marketing gurus may have you believe, writing a bestseller isn’t something that comes about by accident. When it comes to book publishing, whether through traditional or independent channels, there is, and always has been, a bestseller formula.

What is it? To begin with, the old publishing maxim: “Plot sells” always applies, but in bestseller territory, that plot has to operate according to some very specific parameters.

First, your protagonist must experience a life-altering event, preferably in the first 10 pages of your novel. What that event might be is entirely the author’s choice. They might discover a dead body, they might get the job they’ve always wanted, they might take on a client out of the kindness of their hearts, move to a new school, get abducted by aliens, or find out they are in line for the throne. The specifics don’t matter. The important thing is, this event changes everything, even if your protagonist doesn’t know it yet.

Second, the event must somehow reveal to the protagonist that, whether it involves good fortune or bad, things are not what they seem. Thus, stage two of your plot development must involve, to some degree, a loss of innocence. Maybe the new job involves compromises the protagonist is unwilling to make. Maybe the dead body did not die of natural causes but was murdered, and that murder is one of a string of such crimes. Perhaps the young Pro Bono attorney discovers his client is an ungrateful SOB, who is nevertheless a victim, or the heroine finds there’s something really weird about this new school, or somebody is taking potshots at the heir to the throne. Again, the choice is yours. But to deepen the reader’s empathy with your character’s situation, a degree of disillusion has to happen, hot on the heels of the life- changing event in question.

That loss of innocence involved must in turn serve to strengthen your character’s resolve. Despite conflict and despite misgiving they must win the court case, play office politics, discover the murderer, graduate high school, or refuse to abdicate their rights to the throne. They are in search of Truth, after all, and Truth must be revealed in the course of the story.
In a bestseller, that quest for Truth will necessarily put them at the mercy of forces beyond their control. Those might manifest as some ancient Vatican secret, a war breaking out; corruption extending to the highest level of government or discovering supernatural forces and being hauled off to the funny farm for your pains. It might involve your parents trying to marry you off to a philandering pipsqueak as your soulmate lies wounded on the battlefield, or the serial killer is your old boyfriend. Whatever. But at this point in your bestseller, it needs to be obvious to the reader that whatever else is going on, your protagonist is in very deep doo-doo.

At which point they can only choose to pursue their quest at great personal peril, confronting seemingly insurmountable odds. They need to get fired, lose the fortune, be disowned, get expelled, get shot, or have somebody cut their brake lines or plant a car bomb. Actual physical peril is essential to the formula, and if you’re really good, these new events and twists of plot will leave your protagonist more or less unscathed, but will cause them to lose a valuable ally or someone they love—the spouse, the trusty sidekick; a lady’s maid who sips the poisoned wine, the hapless, cheerful neighbor who borrowed the car. That element of profound personal loss or sacrifice is another essential element of the bestseller formula, but it’s also important to have it be something of a surprise, to both the reader and the protagonist.

Finally, the bestseller must have a satisfying resolution. Too many authors fail in that respect because they’re leaving themselves open for the sequel. Regardless of whether or not you’re planning a series though, by the end of your bestseller, secrets must be revealed and conspiracies thwarted. Justice must be done, wars should end and true love should triumph, at least to a degree. Sadder perhaps, but wiser, your protagonist doesn’t need to emerge from your plot with the whole enchilada. That’s a fairy tale, which is entirely distinct from a bestseller. In fact, it’s often better when they don’t. What they do need to convey to the reader however is a sense of ultimate satisfaction. Whatever happened, whatever they’ve done and despite what they’ve lost, that sense of knowing, deep down, that it was all worth it?

That’s the happiest ending of all.

Editor Teresa Kennedy is a specialist in story development and author coaching. For more about her services, come see us at