All great stories have baddies. Baddies or antagonists are the characters who get in your hero or heroine’s way. They create conflict and problems – all the things readers love. Evil villains help create a story that is exciting and sometimes even scary. Evil is up there with Love, Death, Beauty, Friendship, and Fate. Sooner or later we encounter at least a few of them in a good story. Here are 10 ways you can turn a character bad as a writer.
1. Bad Parents
When King Minos became king of Crete he challenged his brother to a dual. He prayed to Poseidon, the sea god for some help. Poseidon sent him a snow-white bull. The deal was that the king had to kill the bull to show honour to the gods, but he decided to keep it and kill one of his own bulls. To punish Minos, Poseidon made Pasiphaë, Minos’s wife, fall deeply in love with the bull. She was so in love that she had craftsman Daedalus make a hollow wooden cow, then she climbed inside it in order to mate with the white bull. The offspring was the monstrous Minotaur. Pasiphaë nursed him, and as he grew he became ferocious and started to eat people. Minos went to the oracle at Delphi for advice on how to handle his monstrous son. He had Daedalus construct a gigantic labyrinth to hold the Minotaur under the palace.
Deviant parents give a character a bad start in life as the Greeks knew all too well!
American author Ray Bradbury gave the theme a modern twist with his short story The Veldt in 1950.
The Hadley family live in an automated house called “The Happylife Home,” filled with machines that do every task. The two children, Peter and Wendy, become fascinated with the “nursery,” a virtual reality room able to reproduce any place they imagine.
The parents, George and Lydia, begin to wonder if there is something wrong with their way of life.
Lydia tells George, “That’s just it. I feel like I don’t belong here. The house is wife and mother now, and nursemaid. Can I compete with an African veldt? Can I give a bath and scrub the children as efficiently or quickly as the automatic scrub bath can? I cannot.”
They are also perplexed and confused as to why the nursery is stuck on an African setting, with lions in the distance, eating a dead figure. There they also find recreations of their personal belongings and hear strangely familiar screams. Wondering why their children are so concerned with this scene of death, they decide to call a psychologist.
The psychologist, David McClean, suggests they turn off the house, move to the country, and learn to be more self-sufficient.
The children, feeling reliant on the nursery, beg their parents to let them have one last visit. Their parents agree and when they come to fetch them, the children lock George and Lydia into the nursery with the pride of lions. Shortly after, it is implied that the lions eat George and Lydia.
When the psychologist comes by to look for George and Lydia, he finds the children enjoying lunch on the veldt and sees the lions eating figures in the distance – George and Lydia, the reader is lead to presume.
Favouritism is a commonly used trope in Fiction Land. Bad enough when you’re an only child, but if you’re among a pack of siblings, this particular trope is nearly guaranteed to raise its head at some point in order to make life even more difficult.
Parental Favouritism is just what it sounds like — one child is given preference over their siblings.
Cain and Abel were sons of Adam and Eve in the biblical Book of Genesis. Cain, the firstborn, tilled the soil, and his brother Abel was a shepherd. The brothers made sacrifices to God, each of his own produce, but God favoured Abel’s sacrifice instead of Cain’s. Cain murdered Abel.
God punished Cain with a life of wandering and set a mark on him so that no man would kill him. Cain then dwelt in the land of Nod where he built a city and fathered the line of descendants beginning with Enoch. The narrative never explicitly states Cain’s motive though it does describe him as being wrathful, and his motive is traditionally assumed to be envy.
This biblical story and archetype of brothers locked in dual for their father’s affection is the basis for many a story and many a baddie. Sibling rivalry, envy, and wrath can motivate a character to a lot of very bad behaviour.
Favourites come in a number of varieties: Birth Order, Gender, Personality, Biological versus Adopted or Step Children – just think of all those fairy stories!
Way back in Ancient Greece King Tereus of Trace takes his wife Procne and her sister Philomela to visit their father in Athens. On the way, he lusts after Philomela. One night he rapes her. To stop her telling his wife he cuts out her tongue.
Those Greeks sure knew how to do baddies. Here sexual desire, power, and guilt are the key motivators along with a good dollop of misogyny.
Continuing the story of the now mute Philomela; she weaves a tapestry that tells her story. When her sister finds out what has happened she kills her son by Tereus; boils him up and serves him up to his father for dinner. Philomela is turned into a Nightingale and given a beautiful voice by the gods to make amends for her terrible ordeal.
Yes, this is an extreme case and the origin of the expression revenge is a dish best served cold. Your characters don’t have to murder children to get their revenge putting rotting shrimps in the air conditioning ducts of his nice new apartment might be enough revenge for a women spurned.
Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth couldn’t just be happy with her Scottish castle and thanedom, could she?
“Glamis thou art, and Cawdor, and shalt be
What thou art promised. Yet do I fear thy nature;
It is too full o’ th’ milk of human kindness
To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great,
Art not without ambition, but without
The illness should attend it. (1.5.15-20)
After reading the letter from her husband which recounts the witches’ prophesy, Lady Macbeth’s thoughts immediately turn to murder. Problem: Her husband Macbeth has ambition, but he doesn’t have the nerve to see it through. Luckily Lady Macbeth is man enough for both of them.
The novel, The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett, begins when the knockout Miss Wonderly walks into Spade’s office. It turns out she’s a knockout with money. And she wants to hire the services of a private detective to find her missing sister, who supposedly ran off with a crook named Thursby. Neither Spade nor his partner Miles Archer, buy her story. But with the money she’s paying, who cares? When Archer and then Thursby are murdered, Spade realizes that he’s getting more than he bargained for. In fact, just about everyone around Sam Spade dies trying to get their hands on a bird figurine worth…$10,000.
Is the love of money the root of all evil? Charles Dickens thought so. Unlike Hammet he saves his character Scrooge from his lonely fate when the author shows him what happens to greedy and selfish men – that it when the author isn’t bumping them off at a rate of knots!
This terribly sad true-life story shows just what can happen when someone feels rejected. Rejection is painful. Being made to look worthless is a frightening experience so rejection can be a powerful motivation for baddies. Children rejected by their parents are often lonely, angry and hostile to a world they perceive does not love them.
Because being left out can be so painful for children, researchers have spent a lot of time and effort trying to figure out why some children are rejected. About half of rejected boys are aggressive. They hit, kick, or shove more than other boys, and they also tend to be more disruptive and argumentative. However, not all rejected boys are aggressive. Another 13-20% are shy and withdrawn. Still, others are socially awkward. Their odd, disruptive, or immature behaviour is off-putting to peers.
The son of a Hollywood assistant director went on a shooting rampage near the UC Santa Barbara campus slaying 6 people and engaging in a shootout with police which left him dead. The young man was 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, the son of Hunger Games second unit director Peter Rodger. Prior to the rampage, Rodger submitted recordings to Youtube, chronicling his catastrophic emotional state after admittedly being rejected by women for eight years.
7. Feeling Invisible
In 1917, “Baby Jane” Hudson is an adored yet ill-tempered vaudevillian child star while her older sister Blanche lives in her shadow. By 1935, their fortunes have reversed: Blanche is a successful film actress and Jane lives in obscurity, her films having failed.
One night, Jane mocks Blanche at a party, prompting Blanche to run away in tears. That same night, Blanche is paralysed from the waist down in a mysterious car accident that is unofficially blamed on Jane, who is found three days later in a drunken stupor.
In 1962 a wheelchair-bound Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Jane (Bette Davis) are living together in Blanche’s mansion, purchased with Blanche’s movie earnings. By now, Jane has descended into alcoholism and mental illness and treats Blanche with cruelty to punish her for stealing her spotlight.
Later, when Blanche informs Jane she may be selling the house, Jane’s mental health begins to deteriorate further. During an argument, she removes the telephone from Blanche’s bedroom, cutting Blanche off from the outside world.
Jane begins denying Blanche food, until she serves Blanche her dead parakeet on a platter—and, at a later meal, a rat that she killed in the cellar. Jane kills Blanche’s carer and then drives to the beach where she finally goes bonkers as the police arrive to arrest her for the carer’s death and Blanche dies.
This is a powerful case of sibling rivalry, ambition, and ego. The story of these sisters shows just how powerful these motivators can be in the hands of a great writer. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is a 1962 American psychological thriller–horror film produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The screenplay by Lukas Heller is based on the 1960 novel of the same name by Henry Farrell. Upon the film’s release, it was met with widespread critical and box office acclaim and was later nominated for five Academy Awards, winning one for Best Costume Design, Black and White.
Lord Varys: Thwarting you has never been my primary ambition, I promise you. Although, who doesn’t like to see their friends fail now and then.
Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish:You’re so right. For instance, when I thwarted your plan to give Sansa Stark to the Tyrells, if I’m going, to be honest, I did feel an unmistakable sense of enjoyment there. Game of Thrones (TV Series), The Climb (2013)
Varys and Littlefinger may seem to be minor players — but the maneuverings of the noble families of Westeros often seem to come back to their ongoing chess game. Varys and Littlefinger articulate two very different philosophies. Lord Petyr Baelish, popularly called Littlefinger, was the Master of Coin on the Small Council under King Robert Baratheon and King Joffrey Baratheon. He was a skilled manipulator and used his ownership of brothels in King’s Landing to both accrue intelligence on political rivals and acquire vast wealth. Baelish’s spy network is eclipsed only by that of his arch-rival Varys.
Love them or hate them, Littlefinger and Varys are the series’ real game changers. They also take the reality TV show approach to competition, forming alliances, lying, and manipulating. Basically, they aren’t here to make friends. They are here to win. But, winning means different things to the two characters and the more they can thwart the other the better.
9. Lies and Betrayal
In the song made famous by Tom Jones the price for lies is death – ‘I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more, why, why Delilah?’ The biblical Delilah was approached by the lords of the Philistines, to discover the secret of Samson’s strength. She was offered eleven hundred pieces of silver for her pains. Three times she asked Samson for the secret of his strength but each time he gave her a false answer. On the fourth occasion, he gave her the true reason: that he did not cut his hair in fulfillment of a vow to God. When he was asleep she allowed his enemies to cut off his hair. They took him, put out his eyes, and bound him with fetters. Later, of course, he took his revenge by bringing the whole house down on his foes.
Betrayal destroys trust. If a loved one betrays us it crushes our faith in ourselves and others. The world and everyone in it can become an ugly place to live in. Betrayal is a particularly effective emotion-filled type of conflict that we can use in fiction to create long-lasting problems for our characters.
10. Being a Psychopath
Characteristics of a psychopath: glibness and superficial charm, grandiose sense of self-worth, pathological lying, cunning/manipulative, lack of remorse, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy, unwillingness to accept responsibility for actions, a tendency to boredom, a parasitic lifestyle, a lack of realistic long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, lack of behavioural control, behavioural problems in early life, juvenile delinquency, criminal versatility, a history of “revocation of conditional release” (i.e. broken parole), multiple marriages, and promiscuous sexual behaviour.
A recent study suggests that 1-4% of the population is on the psychopathic scale. This means that we’ll probably all meet at least one psychopath in our lives.
Psychopaths love themselves. Even if nobody else loves them. They’ll think they’re the best at whatever it is that they do, even if they suck at it. It’s entirely possible they’ll take credit for other people’s success too – they live vicariously and will work how a way to feel they contributed to it somehow. Ultimately, their world revolves around them and no one else. Psychopaths are great characters to write as they give you so much scope for upsetting others and it’s so rewarding when, as an author, you can give them their comeuppance.
About the author: Julia Herdman writes historical fiction. Her debut novel Sinclair is available worldwide on Amazon.
Writing about the past in the present tense is hot with publishers but does it work for readers?
In writing and rhetoric, the historical present or narrative present is the employment of the present tense when narrating past events.
Dickens – David Copperfield
Dickens used it to give immediacy: ‘If the funeral had been yesterday, I could not recollect it better. The very air of the best parlour, when I went in at the door, the bright condition of the fire, the shining of the wine in the decanters, the patterns of the glasses and plates, the faint sweet smell of cake, the odour of Miss Murdstone’s dress, and our black clothes. Mr. Chillip is in the room and comes to speak to me.
“And how is Master David?” he says, kindly.
I cannot tell him very well. I give him my hand, which he holds in his.
— Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Chapter IX
More recently, analysts of its use in conversation have argued that it functions by foregrounding events that is, signaling that one event is particularly important than others. Historical novelist Sarah Dunant is one of the ace exponents of this style of writing. She uses the present tense to bring the past to life. The elegance of her prose can be seen in this quote from her latest book, In the Name of the Family, Virago, 2017.
“He leaves for work each day at dawn. In the beginning, she had hoped that her nest-ripe body might tempt him to linger awhile. Florence is rife with stories of married men who use early risings of excuses to visit their mistresses, and he had come with a reputation for enjoying life. That even if that were the case, there’s nothing she can do about it, not least because where ever he is going, this husband of hers has already gone from her long before he gets out of the door.
In fact, Niccolo Machiavelli doesn’t leave the warmth of his marriage bed for any other woman (he can do that easily enough on his way home), but because the days dispatches arrived at the Pallazzo della Signoria early and it is his greatest pleasure as well as his duty to be among the first to read them.
His journey takes him down the street on the south side of the city and across the river Arno via the Ponte Vecchio. A maverick winter snowfall has turned into grimy frost and the ground cracks like small animal bones under his feet. On the bridge, fresh carcasses are being unloaded into the butcher’s shops. Through the open shutters, he catches glimpses of the river, its surface a silvery apricot under the rising sun. A feral dog streaks across his path, going for a goblet of offal near the wheel of a cart. It earns him a kick in the ribs of his daring but his jaws remain firmly clenched over the prize. Scavenging opportunist Niccolo thinks, not without a certain admiration.”
Dunant describes her inspiration in an interview with Meredith K. Ray.
She said, “I became interested in a very simple idea, which was, “What would it have been like to be in the middle of the cauldron [Florence] of the shock of the new that they must have felt when it was happening around them?”
I just kept thinking “Dear God, everywhere you go in this city, it must have been vibrating!” I wondered whether or not it would be possible to write a book that would capture that sense of exploding modernity within the past.
Then of course what happened is when I went back to look at the history, I realized that there had been a quiet but persuasive revolution going on within the discipline. When I was doing history [at Cambridge] . . . people studying [gender and race] had yet to move into doing their post-graduate work and become professors and start producing the literature which was starting to fill in the missing spaces or at least make a gesture towards the colour.
I really often think of [history] as a pointillist painting, which is made up of a thousand dots. It’s just bits of paint, but as you walk away, each one of them gives you more of a sense of internal life and dynamic. I really began to feel that that was true about some of the history that I’d studied: blocks of primary colour, but there was stuff missing and it was very important stuff. It was like, “What was it like to be half the population?”
Dunnant’s story proceeds through a succession of tremendous set pieces, including a sea storm, a plague, the delivery of a child and various skirmishes as the pope and his children seek to tighten the “Borgia belt” around Italy. The focus is on the immediacy of the experience in a similar way to Hilary Mantel’s Tudor novels. Like Mantel Dunant’s project is a sympathetic presentation. The villains are human beings with families and needs – power being the first among many. Dunant has made the Borgia’s completely her own in this way. How the use of the present tense fits this aim is unclear as it used in all her writing.
Mantel’s prose is sparse and more visceral by comparison;”The blood from the gash on his head – which is his father’s first effort – is trickling across his face. Add to this, his left eye is blinded, but if he squints sideways with his right eye he can see that the stitching of his father’s boot is unravelling. The twine has sprung loose from the leather, and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.“So now get up!” Walter is roaring down at him, working out where to kick him next. He lifts his head an inch or two, and moves forward, on his belly, trying to do it without exposing his hands, on which Walter enjoys stamping. “What are you an eel?” his parent asks. He trots backwards, and aims another kick.” Woolf Hall, Harper Collins, 2009.
Mantel said, “My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claim.” Perhaps that is why she uses the present tense in her work.
She goes on to say that when we memorialise the dead we are sometimes desperate for the truth or for a comforting illusion. As a nation, we need to reach into the past for foundation myths of our tribe. We find them in past glories and past grievance, but we seldom find them in cold facts. Nations she says are built on wishful versions of their origins: stories in which our ancestors were giants, of one kind or another.
According to Mantel, we live in a world of romance. Once the romance was about aristocratic connections and secret status, the fantasy of being part of an elite. Now the romance is about deprivation, dislocation, about the distance covered between there and here. The facts have less traction, less influence on what we are and what we do, than the self-built fictions.
Novelists she says are interested in driving new ideas but readers are touchingly loyal to the first history they learn. However, if you’re looking for safety and authority, history is the wrong place to look say Mantel. Any worthwhile history is in a constant state of self-questioning, just as any worthwhile fiction is. If the reader asks the writer, “Have you evidence to back your story?” the answer should be yes: but you hope the reader will be wise to the many kinds of evidence there are, and how they can be used.”
Does writing about the past in the present tense work? As much as I admire both writers I shall be sticking to the past tense in my writing with a bit of present tense thrown in for immediacy when required. As a reader, I find it much easier to read and hold onto the story when it’s written that way. Too much present tense, in my opinion, can end up like listening to the audio-description while you’re watching TV even if the prose is elegant.
Julia Herdman’s debut novel ‘Sinclair‘ is available on Amazon worldwide.
Historical fiction is a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting located in the past. Historical fiction is an umbrella term; though it is commonly used as a synonym for describing the historical novel. Historical fiction also occurs in other narrative formats – the performing and visual arts like theatre, opera, cinema, and television, as well as video games and graphic novels.
An essential element of historical fiction is that it is set in the past and pays attention to the manners, social conditions and other details of the period depicted. Historical fiction writers frequently choose to explore notable historical figures in these settings, allowing readers to better understand how these individuals might have responded to their environments. Some subgenres such as alternate history and historical fantasy insert speculative or ahistorical elements into a novel.
Works of historical fiction are sometimes criticized for lack of authenticity because of readerly or genre expectations for accurate period details. This tension between historical authenticity, or historicity, and fiction frequently becomes a point of comment for readers and popular critics, while scholarly criticism frequently goes beyond this commentary, investigating the genre for its other thematic and critical interests.
When Wolf Hall won the Booker prize some commentators suggested that the term “historical fiction” was itself becoming a thing of the past. So many novels these days are set prior to the author’s lifetime that to label a novel “historical” is almost as meaningless as to call it “literary”.
1. Small details matter more than large ones.
The art of fiction is, in large part, the art of small-scale illusions. Focus on the things that set the period and the character – the snap of a fan, the recoil of a rifle, the sound of the hurdy-gurdy playing in the street. In this quote from The Mistletoe Bride by Kate Moss we are whisked immediately back to the 15th or 16th century with the mention of the lute, viol, and citole, the title of the story tells us it is set at Christmas and the drinking and goose fat glistening on merry faces lets us know everyone is feasting.
‘It is my wedding day. I should be happy, and I am.
I am happy, yet I confess I am anxious too. My father’s friends of wild. Their cups clashing against one another and goose fat glistening on their cheeks and their voices raised. There has been so much wine drunk they are no longer themselves. There is lawlessness in a glint of their eyes, but they are not so far gone us to forget their breeding and manners. Their good cheer echoes around the old oak hall, so loud I can no longer hear the lute or viol, or citole s set out for our entertainment.’
2. Period characters require more than period clothes.
Similarly, just as the exterior world requires research to establish believable, small details, the interior world of a character requires research as well. Good historical stories promise to not only transport readers to a historical setting but to reveal the interior life (the mind, heart and aspirations) of a character. For me, some of the large questions here had to do with interior perceptions: You need to find out how people viewed love and romance in your chosen period. What do your characters expect or want from life.
3. Use common names, not technical ones.
It’s all very well knowing the technical terms for the clothes and accoutrements of the past but if your reader is going to have to Google everything you mention it will spoil the story for them. Remember you’re writing a story to entertain not a history textbook. Let your characters engage with both historical details and their place in society. Not only have them interact with the politics or religion of the day – but allow them full use of their senses to recreate their environment, the smells, sounds and feel of their surroundings is just as important as having them know who was King at that time.
4. Immerse yourself in the culture.
To write historical fiction of any kind – short stories or not – you need to be able to close your eyes and have the past blaze up around you. Always remember research takes time. Research is an investment; you draw on it when you need to. Use it like capital and keep most of it in the bank. Historical accuracy is like quicksand. Stay too long in the same place and it will suck you down and there will be no movement, no dynamism to the story. Too much attention to factual detail is undoubtedly an impediment to literary art. Adam Foulds’s The Quickening Maze is described on the Booker prize website as “historically accurate but beautifully imagined”, as if “historically accurate” implied a literary problem. In some respects it does. Ask a historical author: how do you stop that facts getting in the way of the story? And the novelist, driven by his or her imagination, will offer a wealth of answers. The historian will assure you that the facts are the story.
5. Find experts.
Have fun with research, but do your homework. Use reference books, watch films, read novels of the period. Make sure you’re comfortable with all aspects of the time from politics to illnesses, from food to fashion, from local geography to language (even if you choose not to use it.) Hand in hand with double-checking comes evaluating your sources. If something seems a bit improbable or sketchy, it probably is. Look for another source to back it up. Use the internet wisely. We are so blessed nowadays with the amount of information at our fingertips, the access we have to old maps and stats is amazing. But ALWAYS triple check your facts, be aware of false information and never rely solely on Wikipedia! Use a good mix of primary and secondary sources for both perspective and immediacy and double-check everything. Bad mistakes will reflect on your work even if it is the fault of your source.
6. Historical facts are not the storyline.
Anyone who has tried to make a story out of historical narrative will know it’s impossible. History is the context out of which fiction grows. Fiction is the examination of the human heart as individual characters move through scenes that test – or perhaps change – their souls. History is just the backdrop. Of course, if you’re writing about a real historical person it is necessary to stick to the facts.
So you’re thinking about writing – for your blog, for your company, for industry publications, or maybe just for fun. Maybe you’ve never considered writing but you’re quickly realising you’re going to have to do it and do it well, for your career.
If you’ve not done much writing before you may think you’ve just got to wait for the muse to strike you like the poets of old, or you may think you have to be born with some special, innate talent. You don’t have to be Shakespeare to write well. Of course, some great writers wait for the muse and some may have innate talent but most of us have to get by working at it. Learning to write is like anything else in life it is a process of trial and error. Anyway you know what they say about genius – it’s 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. So, here are five tips that will help you develop your writing skills whatever or whoever you’re writing for.
1. Take advantage of the world around you, use it for inspiration—your walk to the subway, the stories in your Facebook newsfeed, your interaction with the cashier at Starbucks in the morning etc. As writer Henry Miller once said, “Develop interest in life as you see it; in people, things, literature, music—the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls, and interesting people. Forget yourself.”
2. Take control of your own destiny. Know where you write best. For some people, it’s peace and quiet, while others need music or the chaotic hubbub of co-workers milling about. Different places suit different people and different types of writing. When you have to write for work, you may need to put in your headphones and listen to the crooning of Lana Del Rey, but when you’re blogging, you may prefer curling up on your couch with a glass of wine. Instead of trying to force yourself to write at a specific location, try out a variety of different spaces until you find what works for you. Then, recreate that cozy, creative environment every time you need to write.
3. Read it out loud. This tip is twofold. First, in most cases, you should write like you talk. Even if you, tend to use a casual tone, that’s OK—it will help you sound more realistic and understandable to your readers. Try recording yourself talking for two minutes then transcribing it. You can correct obvious mistakes later. Writing that reflects the way you speak often showcases the most authentic version of yourself. Secondly, once you’ve written something down, actually read it out loud. As silly as you may feel, it’s the best way to make sure what you’ve written makes sense. Anything that doesn’t flow is confusing, or is missing a word or two will quickly make itself apparent.
4. Take advantage of opportunities to develop your skills and knowledge. Most people baulk at the idea of standing in front of a room full of strangers and baring their soul to the world, but joining a writing workshop can be immensely beneficial – and a lot of fun. Meet up with a friend or colleague who wants to write and share your work. You don’t need to have an unfinished novel hidden away in your desk drawer to join a workshop. These days, content marketing meet-ups and professional development groups are popular. Join one of the many content marketing groups on LinkedIn to meet like-minded writers. Pick a topic, write something, listen to the feedback from the group, and then revise it.
5. Seek and respond to feedback from potential readers. Many times, you are your own worst critic. So, when you’re writing, it’s really important not to judge what you write, at least at first. Even experienced writers don’t often crank out a perfect first draft, so setting your expectations too high from the outset is unrealistic not to mention discouraging. A good exercise in nonjudgmental writing is to set a timer for 10 minutes and just write. Write down what you know, what you feel, or whatever’s on your mind. Don’t try to write too carefully or too intelligently or too accurately. Writing goes much better when you don’t work so hard at it or criticise your every word.
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction. Her debut novel is available on Amazon.
The profession or the jobs of your character does plays a major role in making your novel a hit.
That’s because a character’s profession affects the entire story.
A job or profession gives an indication of personality, class, wealth and motivation. You can use it as a stereotype or as a short-hand description or develop the character with it.
Just think for a moment. What character attributes would you give to a teacher?
Perhaps the teacher in your imagination is a dotty old professor. A man dressed in tweed with patches on his elbows, a mop of thick grey hair and horn-rimmed spectacles. He teaches classics and quotes passages from Cesar’s Gallic Wars.
Alternatively, the teacher of your imagination may be a young ambitious woman of Anglo-Caribbean descent who teaches physics. She wears a smart white lab coat and red, five-inch heel stilettos. She’s sassy. She drives a sports car and the boys in the class don’t know where to look when she comes into the lab.
Muriel Spark’s character Jean Brodie from the novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a highly idealistic character with an exaggerated romantic view of the world. The phrases Spark gives her character are now clichés in the English language. “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.” “These years are still the years of my prime. It is important to recognise the years of one’s prime, always remember that.” ‘I am a teacher! First, last, always!’ Spark gives the character the name of the historical Jean Brodie the common law wife or mistress of Deacon Willie Brodie. Brodie was an Edinburgh cabinet maker and thief hanged from a gallows of his own design. The fictional Jean is doomed like her namesake whose husband was the was the inspiration for the gothic novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Now think about a taxidermist? Somehow there is always something a bit creepy about this job. Is it the association with dead things, the dismembering of bodies or the macabre nature of the results of their work – an animal that looks alive but is dead? The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Moss is a story in which ghosts and ghoulish patriarchal secrets, estranged female psyches, and tumultuous bird-life. All these elements coexist in a compulsively readable yarn.The novel is a cabinet of curiosities, a tale of sexual predation and female revenge. The protagonist Connie is bright, beautiful, determined, and has a very strong stomach. She’s a victim of traumatic memory loss. The plot involves her mind’s recuperation from obscene events 10 years ago. A crime opens the story. A woman’s corpse is found outside Blackthorn House, where Connie is attempting to stuff a jackdaw. The woman has been garrotted with taxidermist’s wire.
These examples show that giving your character a profession enables you to start building that character and the character, in turn, helps you to build the story. In my novel Sinclair, which is set in the late 18th century, Sinclair is a man of the Enlightenment who has rejected religion. This leaves him isolated from his family and much of society. He is a dedicated doctor who wants to heal people.
If the story is a realistic fiction, it’s best to avoid ridiculous characters and professions that don’t exist in the real world.On the other hand, if you are writing a general fiction story, an absurd and unrealistic profession is perfectly acceptable as long as you stick to the descriptions you have given about that character and his or her profession. For example, if you plan on writing a fantasy fiction, your character will probably include mythical creatures such as goblins, trolls, giants, or unicorns. The main character will possibly possess magical powers again consistency is the key here – what can your character do with magic and what are their limitations? Limitations are often the making of a character.
Even in Sci-fi, the best characters have jobs: Ship’s captain, the General of an invading army, the pilot or navigator of a space of underwater cruiser. Phillip Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is a science fiction novel describing humanity’s struggle for survival in a post-apocalyptic world after a nuclear war has irradiated the Earth, forcing humans to create a separate colony on Mars. Character Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter who is about to have one bad day.
Unlike the bounty hunters of the Wild West, this space age cowboy will, within the space of twenty-four hours, have to kill six state-of-the-art androids, have an inter-galactic corporation mess with his mind, meet a metaphysical god twice, and discover an extinct animal.
Rick clearly lacks empathy for androids, his electric sheep, and for his wife which, in an ironic twist, is the very fault androids are accused of and as a result, they must be killed. Rick is a hypocrite, in a way he represents the hypocrisy of mankind. He punishes androids for lacking empathy when he’s the least empathetic person on the planet.
Some authors and screenwriters choose to write an ironic character that doesn’t match their profession. Other times, a profession can be used to create a twist in the plot. This is usually true for novels with a dramatic theme. A character could be shown doing something they don’t enjoy at all. They are bored of their ordinary life and their ordinary profession.
Take “Fight Club”, a book by Chuck Palahniuk for example; in this novel, his protagonist who is never named is a man who works as a product recall specialist. Our protagonist hates his job and his lifestyle. In this anti-capitalist story, the narrator attempts to treat his depression and insomnia through obsessive consumerism and knowledge of brands.
On a flight home from a business trip, the Narrator meets Tyler Durden, a soap salesman with whom he begins to converse after noticing the two share the same kind of designer briefcase. After the flight, the Narrator returns home to find that his apartment has been destroyed by an explosion.
With no one else to contact, he calls Tyler and Tyler invite the Narrator to stay at his place but requests that the Narrator hit him first, which escalates into a minor fistfight. The Narrator then moves into Tyler’s home, a large dilapidated house in an industrial area of their city and begins assisting with Tyler’s handmade soap business. They have further fights outside the bar on subsequent nights, and these fights attract growing crowds of men.
The fighting eventually moves to the bar’s basement where the men form a structured club (“Fight Club”) which routinely meets to provide an opportunity for disaffected local men to fight safely for recreation. Ultimately, the story degenerates into a stop the bad guy destroying capitalism movie but the initial idea is interesting.
Princess Sophia, aged 5 in 1782 by Thomas Gainsborough. The Royal Collection.
This is the sad story of Princess Sophia. An unworldly and shy woman who was seduced by a man 33 years her senior, gave birth to his illegitimate child and was blackmailed by her son to pay his father’s debts.
According to biographer Christopher Hibbert, in her young adulthood Princess Sophia, the 5th daughter of King George III, was a “delightful though moody girl, pretty, delicate and passionate.” She was devoted to her father, though she occasionally found him exasperating. She wrote that “the dear King is all kindness to me, and I cannot say how grateful I feel for it.”
The King had told his daughters he would take them to Hanover and find them suitable husbands despite misgivings concerning marriage; he was well aware of his sisters’ experience. His eldest sister, Augusta had never fully adapted to life in Brunswick after her marriage to Charles William Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick-Lüneburg, Prince of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. She did not like the German court and they did not like her. Her situation was made worse by the fact that her eldest sons were born with disabilities.
George’s sister Caroline had suffered a far worse fate; at the age of 15, she was married to her cousin, Christian VII of Denmark in 1766. A year later her husband abandoned her for his mistress Støvlet-Cathrine publicly declaring that he could not love Caroline because it was “unfashionable to love one’s wife”. Caroline was left neglected and unhappy as her young husband sank into a mental stupor of paranoia, self-mutilation, and hallucinations.
A Royal Affair is a 2012 historical drama film directed by Nikolaj Arcel, starring Mads Mikkelsen, Alicia Vikander, and Mikkel Følsgaard.
She took comfort with her husband’s doctor, Johann Friedrich Struensee, and Enlightenment man who ran Denmark with the half-crazed King introducing widespread reforms. The affair between Caroline and Struensee resulted in Caroline giving birth to his child, her divorce, and Struensee’s execution in 1772. Caroline, retaining her title but not her children, eventually left Denmark and passed her remaining days in exile at Celle Castle in Hanover. She died there of scarlet fever on 10 May 1775, at the age of 23.
George was unable to keep his promise due to his own ill health but when Sophia was born the King went to Parliament to negotiate allowances for his daughter and his younger sons. Like her siblings, Sophia was to receive an allowance of £6,000 a year either upon her marriages or the king’s death. This would have made her an attractive marriage prospect but Sophia ruined what prospects she had when she met and fell in love with one of her father’s equerries, Colonel, Thomas Garth, a man thirty-three years her senior.
Garth had a large purple birthmark on his face, causing Sophia’s sister Mary to refer to him as “the purple light of love.” Courtier and diarist Charles Greville, on the other hand, described him as a “hideous old devil,” and one of her ladies-in-waiting wrote, “the princess was so violently in love with him that everyone saw it. She could not contain herself in his presence.”
Princess Sophia, 1792 by Sir William Beechey. The Royal Collection.
Sophia’s downfall came when she found herself pregnant with Garth’s child. Although there has been much debate amongst historians as to whether the child was Garth’s or her uncle’s, the Duke of Cumberland’s, Thomas Garth adopted the child, educated him and brought him into his regiment calling him his nephew.
Sophia never married and remained at court until her mother Queen Charlotte died. After the queen’s death, Sophia lived in Kensington Palace next to her niece Princess Victoria of Kent, the future Queen Victoria. Like her sister-in-law the Duchess of Kent, Sophia fell under the spell of Victoria’s comptroller Sir John Conroy and let him manage her money. The lonely and unworldly Sophia fell under Conroy’s spell and he used her affection to rob her.
Her son, Tommy Garth of the 15th Hussars (1800-1873), learned of his true heritage when his father thought he was on his deathbed in 1828. With the family deep in debt, he tried to blackmail the royal family with evidence of his mother’s true identity. As historian Flora Fraser writes, all parties played unfairly. The royal family offered young Garth £3,000 for his box of evidence; they took the box but did not pay him so he went to the papers. The press dug up the gossip concerning the possibility of the Duke of Cumberland being his true father making the latter part of Sophia’s life very difficult.
Princess Sophia, 1825 by Thomas Lawrence in The Royal Collection.
Charles Greville summed Sophia up with he wrote in his diary in May 1848, shortly after she died: “Princess Sophia died a few days ago, while the Queen [Victoria] was holding the Drawing-room for her Birthday. She [Sophia] was blind, helpless, and suffered martyrdom; a very clever, well-informed woman, but who never lived in the world.”
Sources: Fraser, Flora (2004). Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III. London: John Murray. ISBN 0-7195-6109-4. Hibbert, Christopher (2000). George III: A Personal History. Basic Books. ISBN 0-465-02724-5. Hibbert, Christopher (2001). Queen Victoria: A Personal History. De Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-81085-9.