Legendary, by Donald Maass


Recently, a young agent on my staff requested a really good manuscript.  She wanted to represent it.  Naturally, so did a number of other sharp-eyed agents and thus my young colleague found herself in a so-called beauty contest, a familiar competitive event in our profession.

To back up my young colleague’s bid, I arranged a phone call with the equally young, appallingly talented young writer of the manuscript in question.  I told her about our agency, our orientation to career development, our long experience and the staff who would support her work.  The young writer in turn assured me that she really liked my young colleague and knew my company’s reputation, and mine.  She said, “I mean, like, you’re a legend and all.”

That stopped me.  A legend?  Now wait a minute.  I’ve been doing my job for a long time.  I’ve written a couple of influential books on fiction technique.  I teach fiction writing.  All true.  But legend?  B.B. King was a legend.  Jackie Robinson was a legend.  Ernest Hemingway was a legend.  But me?  Even taking into account the casual hyperbole of young people, I don’t qualify.  Believe me, when I’m scraping the breakfast plates or vacuuming our car, I don’t feel like much of a legend.

This mildly unsettling moment came to mind when over the holidays, when we took our kids to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  Without spoiling too much, the future Jedi knight Rey seeks out reclusive Luke Skywalker to persuade him to return to the beleaguered Resistance, which according to Rey needs “a legend” for inspiration.  Luke however dismisses her, scoffing at his outsized status.  After some delay scenes, Luke reveals that he—as he sees it—failed in his training of Ben Solo, who succumbed to the Dark Side of the Force and transformed into murderous Kylo Ren.  He spits out the word with ironic contempt: “Luke Skywalker…legend.”

Characters’ backstories come in many varieties, but fairly often authors default to past events that are tragic, hurtful and secret.  Protagonists live under a cloud.  They’re shadowed, haunted, tormented and burdened by misfortunes or mistakes.  Nothing wrong with that, but the prior lives of protagonists can also be built on a foundation of towering reputation, past achievements, high position, notorious crimes or other notoriety that equally complicate their lives.

Some may have established reputations as heroes.  Sherlock Holmes.  James Bond.  Nancy Drew.  Conan.  Kvothe.  Some may be (or become) legends for their achievements.  Katniss Everdeen.  Martin Dressler.  The Mambo Kings.  Others may be automatic legends by dint of being rich or patriarchal.  Olive Kitteridge. Christian Grey.  Smaug.  Miriam Raphael (Crescent City).  Others may be legendary for their obsessions or ambitions.  Becky Sharp.  Jay Gatsby.  Captain Ahab.  Captain Nemo.  Others may be legendarily alluring.  Scarlet O’Hara.  Holly Golightly.  Others may be notorious.  Boo Radley.  John Galt.  Harry Flashman.  Hannibal Lechter.  Others may be legends in their own micro-realms: Evelyn Couch (Fried Green Tomatoes).  Harriet Welsch (Harriet the Spy).  Bigwig (Watership Down).

Famous or notorious pasts can lead quite quickly to reverse chronology stories, such as Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow or Jeffrey Deaver’s The October List, but that is not automatic.  Great characters can have gigantic reputations, pasts that in the present make them revered, feared, self-doubting or targets.

Enormous pasts not only shade characters, they can propel plots.  Destiny can be unavoidable, and I’m fine with that, but what happens when a destiny is chosen?  Ask me, it becomes that much more compelling.  Nothing wrong with an Everyman and Everywoman thrust into extraordinary circumstances, mind you, but what about heroes and heroines who willingly leap into dire conditions or bravely face danger?

In talking about larger-then-life characters, I don’t mean stereotypes like those hilariously cataloged at TV Tropes.   I mean those whose lives and actions are detailed, credible and carefully constructed.  Readers do not reject big characters; they desire them.  We cheer for Scarlet, Sherlock, Forrest and Hannibal, right?  We love to be swept away by characters larger than life, so why not put those same dynamics at work for you, too?

Here are some practical approaches:

What is your protagonist’s greatest past achievement?  How did that make your protagonist famous?  To whom is your protagonist a hero or heroine?  In what way is that reputation deserved?  In what way is it overblown? 

What don’t people know about that great achievement?  What did eye-witnesses at the time over-estimate or overlook?  What does your protagonist discount?  In what way has that great achievement grown bigger than it was?  In what way was it actually more amazing, courageous and exceptional than now known?

What great destiny is inherited, bequeathed or imposed on your protagonist?  What is expected of him or her that is not expected of anyone else?  For whom is your protagonist responsible?  Who depends on him or her?  Who has unwarranted faith in your protagonist and believes in a reputation that is not yet earned? 

What would make someone a legend in the world of your story?  What qualities are lacking in this world?  What example is yearned for?  If your protagonist could stand for something that this world sorely needs, what is it?  What is the biggest test?

In what way can your protagonist be braver, more alluring, more self-assured or more commanding than the rest of us?  Who cheers, emulates or swoons over your protagonist?  Who is your hero or heroine’s own hero or heroine?  Who is your protagonist’s impossible, out-of-reach love?

What did your protagonist do to become notorious?  Of what is your protagonist ashamed, or careless about, or perversely proud of?   What is good about being bad?   Who admires your protagonist’s rejection of convention, rules or law?

Give your protagonist occasions for wit, sneering contempt, unwarranted compassion, high generosity, startling insight, quick thinking, and fearless action.  Anchor your protagonist in high principles.  Let your protagonist flaunt convention, break a rule, or go out of bounds.  For what good reason?

What would make your protagonist a hero or heroine to himself or herself?  What must be done?  Why is that impossible?  Do it anyway.

Legendary isn’t an accident.  It’s a destiny embraced and a reputation earned.  It’s not only a call to greatness, but greatness inborn.  Strong characters are terrific, but equally strong can be characters whose history, position, principles, and reputations demand from them the utmost in human potential.

It’s great when characters struggle.  It’s even greater when they struggle with greatness itself.  We need things to live up to, and the examples of people who do.  To be legendary is within your power—on the page, if nowhere else.

Legendary works on scales both big and small.  How might your protagonist become legendary?  In what way?  What will that mean for your plot?

25 Things A Great Character Needs, by Chuck Wendig

See the original post for the more colorful, uncensored version.

1. A Personality

This seems rather obvious, sure — in a way it’s like saying, “What makes a really good tree is that it has an essential treeness” — but just the same, it bears mentioning. Because some characters read like cardboard. They’re like white crayon on white paper. Sure, the characters run around and they do **** and say **** but none of it has anything to do with character and has everything to do with plot — as if the characters are just another mechanism to get to the next action sequence, the next plot point, the next frazza wazza wuzza buzza whatever. Point is: your character needs a personality, and the rest of this list should help you get there.

2. Agency

The character should run an advertising agency. *is handed a note* Oh! Oh. I mean, The character should belong to the FBI and–*gets another note* JESUS CHRIST WITH THE NOTES, PEOPLE. But fine, yes, okay, I get it now. Agency means that the character is active, not passive. The character makes decisions and is attempting to control her own destiny as an independent operator within the story. She is not a leaf in the stream but rather the rock that breaks the river. *receives one more note* Oh, thank you, what a wonderful note! I do agree my beard is sexy, yes. I know! So rich! So full! So shiny. I oil it with secretions from squeezed ermine scent glands which also lends it that musky zing that sort of… crawls up your nose. *flicks beard sweat at you*

3. Motivation

Characters want things. They need things. They are motivated by these desires and requirements and they spend an entire story trying to fulfill them. That’s one of the base level components of a story: a character acts in service to his motivations but obstacles (frequently other characters) stand in his way. We need to know what impels a character. What are her motives? If we don’t know or cannot parse those motivations, her role in the story is alien to us.

4. Fear

Everybody’s afraid of something. Death. Taxes. Bees. Dogs. Love. Carnival workers. Ocelots. (I am afraid of the number 34 and the color “puce.”) Characters suffer from their own personal fears relevant to the story at hand. Characters without fear are basically robots who use their pneumatic doom-claws to puncture any sense of engagement and belief we have in the story you’ve created. The great thing about being a storyteller isn’t just giving characters fear — it’s ensuring that that their fears will arise and be present in the tale at hand. You shall be cruel. This cruelty shall be great fun and a veritable giggle-fest because storytellers are dicks.

5. Internal Conflict

“I am in love with Steve, but I also love my job as a diplomat to the Raccoon People of the Hollow Earth. But Steve is allergic to raccoons! But I may be the only person who can stop the Raccoon People from invading Canada! BY THE GODS WHAT SHALL I DO?” Great characters suffer from internal conflict. They don’t know what they want. Or how to get all the things they want. Position your characters between the Scylla and Charybdis of hard choices: choices that compete with one another. Giving characters these emotional, intellectual, soul-testing conundrums is sweet meat for the audience — the meat of conflict, the meat of drama. Further, it allows us to relate to these characters (as we all have to make hard choices) and gives us a reason to keep reading (because we want to know the character’s choices in the face of these inner conflicts).

6. External Conflict

Hey, external conflict is pretty cool, too. If the character is plagued by an old war wound, a damaged spaceship, a mysterious old villain who shows up to perform surgical karate on the character, all good. Doubly good if the external conflict matches or speaks to the internal conflict in some way. Say, for instance, an author who is addicted to slathering his beard with illicit ermine scent glands is also pursued by a very angry ermine scent gland dealer named Vito who would apparently like his money. Just an example. With no basis in reality. *runs*

7. Connections To Other Characters

That “lone-wolf ronin-without-clan” **** gets tiresome pretty quick. Characters need connections to other characters. These don’t need to be desired connections. They can be connections that the character is actively trying to deny. But they need to be there. They help make the character who she is and continue to push and pull on her as the story unfolds. Friends. Family. Acquaintances. Work buddies. Foes. Neighbors. Drug dealers. Enslaved Pokemon. Sentient snowglobes. Sex androids. Microscopic beard civilizations. You know. The usual.

8. Connections To Us, The Audience

We respond well to those characters who contain a little bit of us. We want to relate to them. The best characters are a broken mirror: we want to see ourselves reflected back, if in a distorted, unexpected way. We want to connect with them using that weird empathic psychic tendon where we tie together our shared traits or universal life experiences like we’re those humanoid blue goat-cat ************* from Avatar. Young adult fiction is written with teenage protagonists experiencing teenage protagonist problems because it’s written for that audience. (And it’s why adults still can read those books comfortably — because adults remember being a teenager.) The reader wants a new story, but she wants an old story, too: her own.

9. Nuance And Complexity

****** one-note characters are a Taco Bell product: manufactured unfrozen gray-meat red-sauce in a proportioned somewhat-maybe-kinda-tortilla. They’re good for a quick bite and a hard purge (remember: you do not buy Taco Bell, you rent Taco Bell and then return it to its ecosystem with a couple flushes). Great characters are a nuanced meal: from an aperitif to the amuse-bouche to the first and second course, all the way through to the monkey course and the molecular gastronomy course, to coffee, dessert, and then ritual suicide. Each bite has complexity. Like sipping a fine wine or a great cup of coffee, you taste things that aren’t expected, that go beyond that word coffee or wine. (“I taste figs and fireplace ash, and a little after-hint of the tears from a griefstruck slow loris.”) A good character is complex because that means they are like — gasp! — real people. Real people who are not easily summed up or predicted. Real people with layers and surprises and who are a little bit good and a little bit bad and a whole lotta interesting.

10. Strengths: To Be Good At Something

Characters who have absolutely zero MAD SKILLZ are dull as a sack of frozen poached hippo meat. We like to read about characters who are good at something. “I’m the best damn werewolf veterinarian you ever did see.” “You need a speech pathologist for velociraptors, then you need me.” “I’m a cop who is also a robot and they call me OFFICERBOT wait that doesn’t sound cool.” You want characters who are capable or even exceptional: Sherlock isn’t a mediocre detective. Buffy isn’t just some half-ass vampire-puncher — she’s the ******* Slayer. RANGER RICK ISN’T JUST SOME ******* RACCOON, MAN. This doesn’t have to be limited to actual skills or talents, mind — a character’s strength can be internal. It can be intellectual or emotional. Or it can be that she can knock a dude’s head off his shoulders with one fast punch.

11. Flaws: To Be Bad At Something

Sherlock is an amazing detective, and a terrible human. Buffy’s a bonafide bad-ass, but she’s also a glib, impulsive teenage girl. Ranger Rick the raccoon can ranger like a ************, but he’s also got a bad addiction to Meow-Meow and a penchant for losing all his ranger paycheck at the Indian casino. Characters can be good at things but they can’t be too good — you need balance. If they’re the best at something, they should also be the worst at something. Conflict lives here; the space between Sherlock being the best detective and the worst human is so taut with tension the potential story might snap and take out someone’s eye. Plus, on a practical level, someone who is good at everything, bad at nothing is boring and unbelievable.

12. A Voice

I don’t mean this in a literal sense — “NO DEAF-MUTES ALLOWED” — I mean that, your character has to sound like your character. A unique voice, a combination of how she speaks and what she says when she does. When you write her dialogue, we should have no doubt who is speaking, even if the dialogue tags were eaten by some kind of bibliovore creature. What kinds of things does she say? Why does she say them? What does she sound like? Does her way of speaking reflect where she grew up or reflect her trying to get away from where she grew up? Is her mother’s voice in there somewhere? Her father’s? Is she brash and bold — or hesitant, reserved? How do all these things reflect who she actually is?

13. A Look

Put me in the camp where characters should look like someone or something. Some writing advice suggests that an author let her characters act as physical ciphers — zero description so that, jeez, I dunno, we can all imprint upon them or imagine them as whoever we want them to be. **** that ****, George. I’m not saying we need to hear about every chipped fingernail, eyelash, or skin tag — but pick a few stark details and make the character stand out. And let those details reveal to us something about the character, too. The perfect suit but the dirty shoes. The hair buzzed so flat you could land a chopper on top of it. The rime of blood under his nails. Whatever. What’s the character’s look, and what can it tell us about him?

14. Emotions

A character without emotion is a soulless automaton. They don’t need to reveal those emotions to the world around them, but they should reveal them to you as author and to the reader, as well. Characters feel things! They feel sorrow. And shame. And bliss. They feel itchy and hungry and confused and so angry they could crumple a vending machine like it’s a can of soda. They run the gamut like, oh, I dunno, real people. And the thing is, you can use these emotional responses to highlight for us who the characters are. They encounter something that should make them happy but it makes them sad instead — that’s a telling moment for the character. Why does this thing that would make everyone else happy make him want to cry and punch a cabinet instead?

15. Mysteries

Questions drive narrative. We continue reading sometimes just to answer questions. Who killed Mrs. Pennytickle? Who stole the Shih-Tzu of Darkness and for what nefarious purpose? What happens next? The audience is driven in part by the need to answer mysteries. Thing is, the audience and the characters have a kind of narrative quantum entanglement; the same things that draw us through a story are the same things that urge a character forward, too. We want to solve the murder same as the cantankerous detective does. Give the character questions that are unanswered — variables in her equation that she is driven to complete.

16. Secrets

It goes the other way, too. Just as a character has questions, he also has answers — answers that he never wants to share with anyone, answers that would be otherwise known as secrets. Heroic secrets. Dark secrets. Sexy secrets. Weird secrets. Underpants secrets. The character knows things that he doesn’t want revealed (creating complexity for the character and tension for the reader).

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17. The Ability To Surprise

The moment a character loses the ability to surprise us, they might as well be a dead body floating down a slow moving river. That’s not to say a character should be unpredictable on every page — “I killed a man! Now I’m starting a churro shop! Now I own a parrot! Now I’m gonna eat the parrot and jump into this howling chasm and die! EEEEeeeeeeeee.” But a character should always be able to still do something that makes us double-take and pump our fists in triumph or drop our jaws in shock. And it’s not just about action, either: it’s about showing surprising depths of emotion, or cleverness, or capability. It’s about the character being so much more than what we expect: a secret forest hidden beneath the cloud cover.

18. Consistency

And yet at the same time, those surprises shouldn’t also come out of left-field, either. Think of it like the reveal of a murderer in a murder-mystery story. You want that murderer to be revealed in a way where the story outsmarted you and yet, it still makes sense, right? You don’t want it to be, “Oh, and the murderer was actually Doctor Piotr Dongwick, the pharmacologist who you’ve never met or heard of and are just meeting now and this is basically the narrative equivalent of ROCKS FALL EVERYBODY DIES.” Characters are that way, too. When they reveal something about themselves or surprise us, it should be a thing that has us nodding our head — not scratching it like a confused chimp. We should be saying “wow!” now “wut?”

19. Small Quirks

I’m not saying every character needs to be a variant of Zooey Deschanel — besides, she is the quirkiest little quirk that ever did quirk and you cannot beat her at her own game. SHE EATS TOMATO SOUP IN THE RAIN WITH FOUR BABY GOATS ALL NAMED “OLIVER.” Whatever. Quirks can be an amateurish way of giving your character depth — in part because it’s artifice that doesn’t create any depth at all. Still, while quirks are no substitute for actual character traits, they are useful in small doses when a) letting the character stand out in our mind and b) lending some depth of character through a seemingly shallow expression. A character who always fidgets with, say, a coin or a pen or a pair of dice may seem like a one-off blah-blah detail, but later it can be revealed that this single, simple act is bound up to some tragic event in the character’s life (“MY MOTHER WAS KILLED BY A PAIR OF DICE” okay maybe not that, but you get the idea).

20. History

Your character didn’t just come karate-punching her way out of some storytelling womb. She wasn’t born pale and featureless like a grub only to grow her wings and limbs halfway through the tale. The character’s been around. Whether she’s 17 or 70, she has history. She has life. Stories. Things that happened to her and things that she did. First kiss! First breakup! First sexual experience! First drunk, first hangover, first AA meeting, first BDSM orgy, first spaceflight. That time Billy Grosbeak tried to grab her boob and she broke his nose. The other time she got fired from her coffeehouse counter-monkey job for spitting in some chode’s caramel macchiato. That time she did the thing with the girl at that place. What we see of a character in a story is just the tippy-top of the iceberg, just a nipple poking out of the water while the rest of the body remains submerged. Don’t let your characters be tabula rasa — some blank slate devoid of history.

21. The Right Name

This may seem a shallow point, but boy does a character’s name matter. You don’t just pick it out of a hat — it has to be the right name, in the same way that you want the right name for a child, or a dog, or that mole on your inner thigh (mine is “Benedict Arnold”). Like, “Bob Stevens” is not the name of a steampunk secret agent. “Miss Permelia Graceyfeather” is not the name of a motel maid from Tucson. You’ve got to find the right name. And, also of importance, a name that doesn’t sound like the name of another character in your book. You don’t want readers confused, nor do you want them conjuring a character from a whole other book or movie when reading yours.

22. Room to Grow

Characters grow and change. Okay, fine — not all of them do, an in certain modes of storytelling a stagnant flatlining character arc is sadly a feature and not a bug. But just the same, the most interesting characters are the ones who at least have the capability of change, who are part of an unfulfilled arc that is unseen but keenly felt. Readers want to go on that journey with a character. They want to go along for the ride: breakups and marriages and babies and revenge and redemption and resurrection. Some animals grow only as big as their cages — so give your character room to move around, yeah? Give them scope! Envision for them an (incomplete) arc!

23. Livability

I am fond of saying that what matters about a character isn’t that we like them but that we can live with them — meaning, if we’re gonna be hunkering down with that character for 400 pages of a book, or two hours of a movie, or a year’s worth of comic books, that character has to be someone we are willing and able to spend time with. They don’t have to be our pal. We’re not asking them for a ride to the airport or help moving into our new apartment. They have to be someone we can — and want! — to spend our time with in the narrative sense. How do you accomplish this? Well…

24. Gravity

You do this by giving them gravity. Making them as big and as interesting as can be so they draw us to them — like moths to a flame, like meteors to the earth, like cat hair to a new sweater. The greatest crime you can commit against your character and your reader is making them boring.

25. You

A good character needs you. You’re the champion, here. You’re the ************* engine of creation that will bring this character to life with the eye-watering boozy muse-breath of your drunken imagination. You are a very special ingredient indeed, young captain. See, the idea goes that no story is original, and maybe that translates to character, too. But you are an original. And the way you do things — the way you arrange old elements of story and character — is something wholly your own, provided you let yourself off the leash, provided you’re willing to smear your guts all over the page. You can bring something fucking amazing to every character you write: yourself. The character doesn’t exist without you. You are the puppeteer. You are parent and deity. So go, create. Give them life. Give them soul. Give them character. And then kick their ass.

Novel characters: 15 top character creation tips


Great novel characters share common features: Distinct, authentic voices, character development, clear goals and motivations, strengths and flaws. Here are 15 of our top character creation tips gathered from some of the best writing blogs and websites:

1: Give your novel characters clear motivations that drive your story

Writing characters who spring to life off the page is partly about giving characters clear motivations. Over at Terrible Minds, Chuck Wendig sums this up eloquently:

‘Characters want things. They need things. They are motivated by these desires and requirements and they spend an entire story trying to fulfill them. That’s one of the base level components of a story: a character acts in service to his motivations but obstacles (frequently other characters) stand in his way.’

For example, many a villian (from C.S. Lewis’ White Witch, Jadis, to Tolkien’s Sauron, desires power; dominion. Their dogged pursuit of greedy goals fuels heroes’ quests to maintain order and justice.

2: Make each novel character identifiable in a police line-up

This is great advice from Word Painting: The fine art of writing descriptively by Rebecca McClanahan (excerpted by Writer’s Digest here):

“My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”

This description is so mundane […] Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him. He appears as a cardboard cutout rather than as a living, breathing character. Yes, the details are accurate, but they don’t call forth vivid images. We can barely make out this character’s form; how can we be expected to remember him?’

Make characters real using details of dress, gait (the way they walk), voice, personality and more. [And get our concise guide, ‘How to Write Real Characters’ to work your way through illustrative examples and practical exercises that will improve your characters.]

3: Make characters lovable, loathsome, and everything between

How do you get readers interested in your characters and how do you make them unforgettable?

Eric Patterson gives this simple and vital advice on animation that applies equally to writing:

‘The viewer should care for or be challenged by the characters.’

To do this give your characters at least one of the following, depending on their role in the story:

  • Likable features: These could be positive traits that attract us to people (kindness, compassion, humility, generosity or other)
  • Humanizing flaws: What does your character fear? What mistakes are your characters prone to making? What do they need to learn in life most urgently?
  • Features that challenge readers: Giving your characters elements that the average person can’t relate to also creates interest. Think of series that have serial killers as protagonists. We still feel tense about their predicaments, even if their behaviour doesn’t fit our own ethical norms. Readers don’t have to like every character. Your protagonist doesn’t necessarily have to embody ‘good’, heroic or noble features. If you want an audience, the first rule is to make your characters interesting

George R R Martin quote - writing novel characters | Now Novel

4: Create interesting dynamics between characters and environment

Your characters can be at home in or at odds with their environment.

There’s no reason you have to limit opposition to character vs character conflict. In The Lord of the Rings, for example, Frodo and Sam’s love for their native Shire makes venturing forth on a dangerous quest a much more daunting decision. There are locations throughout the cycle (The Mines of Moria, The Tower of Orthanc, Mordor) where characters’ environs are treacherous.

Texas A&M University’s Writing Center describes using place to writing interesting novel characters:

‘Where does your character live, work, and play? Does your character fit in to the setting or stand out? The setting can help move the story along and define the character. A character living in Idaho who’s from the Caribbean creates an interesting dynamic.’

5: Use secondary characters as ‘foils’

Not every character in your novel needs to occupy center-stage. As the university of Ohio’s fiction writing resources state:

‘[A foil is] someone whose character contrasts to that of the protagonist, thus throwing it into sharp relief. In Connie Willis’s “The Last of the Winnebagos,’ Katie Powell serves as a foil to the protagonist David McCombe. Katie chases after David to [relieve] her guilt over killing one of the last surviving dogs on Earth, while David runs away from Katie and from admitting to himself that he, too, is responsible for the dog’s death.’

A quick-witted character could have a dim-witted foil, for example. Or give a wildly imaginative character a literal-minded foil. Cervantes does this to great effect in his famous Don Quixote. The self-named Don attacks windmills, imagining them to be giants, while his befuddled sidekick looks on. Here, a foil (comedy’s archetype of the ‘straight man’ – a straight-laced character who contrasts with the kook) heightens the comedy.

6: Create profiles to develop your novel’s characters

Your characters should be more than the sum of the lines of dialogue you give them and their immediate actions in the story.

The best characters are so vivid you can picture them having a life outside of the start and end of the story. How can you give your character this sense of personal history and future? By keeping character profiles:

‘[A character profile] can help flesh out a cardboard character and even make you think about facets of his or her personality that you had not considered before. Character profiles are especially helpful for novels which involve several main characters and for stories which use multiple points of view.’

Make notes on elements such us:

  • Where your character was born and grew up
  • What your character’s political, philosophical or religious views are
  • Your character’s greatest fears and desires
  • What your character is most proud and most ashamed of
  • What your character values and dislikes most in others
  • Stock phrases or physical mannerisms that your character uses – these should be consistent with your character’s background and psychology

7: Deepen characters by incorporating research

If you are writing about characters from a particular historical epoch, research common beliefs, cultural practices and other factual particulars from that time.

A little research can furnish details that will make your characters much more lifelike. As Writing Room says:

‘So you have created the perfect character- a Dragon Slaying Knight; he’s young, handsome, noble and afraid of fire. But if you are a fifty-year old woman living in [the] modern day, do you really know anything about him? You need to research to find out all you can. What were the living conditions like? What was it like for young knights back in medieval times?’

Of course, you’re also free to depart from historical fact, to give your characters your own flavour. Hilary Mantel has been criticized for making her version of Thomas Cromwell too much based on ‘alternative facts’. Yet, as E.L. Doctorow said, ‘The historian will tell you what happened. The novelist will tell you what it felt like.’


8: Show your narrator and other characters’ views of others

Where novels get especially interesting is where different characters observe different aspects of others. One character might find the loud girl at the bar obnoxious and abrasive while another might find her fun and confident. Ask yourself ‘What does this character’s impression of this other character suggest about themselves’?

Angela Ackerman sums it up thus on her writing blog:

‘Show the POV character’s feelings and reactions to the character he/she is observing.

Also, work in the viewer’s emotional reaction to the character. Is the narrator impressed? Intimidated? Fearful? Attracted to them?’

In a multi-character novel, showing characters’ different interpretations of each other this way truly helps to build a sense of complex character psychology and multiple perspectives.

9: Give your characters interiority

What do we mean by ‘interiority’? Your characters have inner worlds that not everyone they encounter has access to.

Think about how your character sees herself versus other people’s impressions and assumptions. WikiHow’s article on describing characters elaborates:

‘You need to know your character in and out to make decisions about what to present. Think about how they see themselves and how others would perceive them. Do these images match or clash?’

10: Don’t let characters know every detail just because you do

As writers we need to sometimes consciously construct boundaries and distinctions between ourselves and our characters.

You might know every detail about your characters’ motivations, their pasts and futures, but your characters don’t need to (and perhaps shouldn’t) share your own omniscience.

Sometimes our own decisions and behaviours surprise or unsettle us. Here’s what author Justine Musk says:

‘There are things we know about ourselves, and that other people know about.

There are things we know about ourselves that other people don’t know about.

[…] The character might think he’s being clever and manipulative, for example, when actually he’s quite transparent.’

11: Use contradictions to make your characters complex

This is great character-writing advice from Becca Puglisi. In a guest post for Write to Done, Puglisi says:

‘Many grandmothers are doting, but what if they’re also manipulative and self-serving?

Create unusual, surprising characters by giving them traits that don’t always go together.

12: Use characters’ names to convey subtle implications

Many names have explicit meanings (Sophia, for example, means ‘wisdom’). When naming your characters, you can add extra layers of meaning by giving them symbolic names. Try names that relate to their story function or personalities. Glen C. Strathy says:

‘You can follow in the footsteps of Charles Dickens and other writers and create character names that convey something about your characters’ personalities. Again, “baby names” websites will tell you what various first names mean, so you can choose ones that fit your characters’

13: Avoid using lazy stereotypes

Stereotypes are at best untrue and at worst explicitly offensive.

In writing novel characters, do your best to avoid characters such as the ‘wise ethnic person’ who gives your protagonist an important, cryptic message. If you must have this scene, think about how you can undercut the cliché of it.

For example, the ‘wise indigenous’ character might be fully aware that’s how your protagonist sees them and could thus play them for a fool. Lucy V Hay at Bang 2 Write says:

‘Know the difference between stereotype and ARCHETYPE.’

An archetype is a character who is a universal, mythic character. The warrior, for example, or the faithful, loyal friend. Using characters such as these does not necessarily make assumptions about entire groups of people based on bias or ignorance, unlike stereotyping.

14: Show characters’ motives through interactions

Rather than say ‘She was jealous of her step-daughter because of the close bond between the child and her husband’, show this jealousy in the interactions between step-mother and daughter.

As New York Writers Workshop faculty member Laura Zinn Fromm writes:

‘Take your characters to parties, gas stations, baseball games, yoga classes and other planets, and make them whisper, yell, confess and interact with other characters. Show the characters’ motives through actions with other characters.’

15: Don’t be afraid to change your viewpoint character if necessary

Sometimes creative blocks can be solved by exploring the voice of a different character in your novel.

Think of how the introductory paragraph of a chapter or essay is often just filler or preparatory work for the real story that starts at paragraph two. Character can be the same – the character you thought was your main character to begin might not be as interesting as another, more complex cast member.

Here is Creative Writing Now’s advice:

‘Is there a character who’s stealing the show from your main character? A character who intrigues you more? Whenever this character comes on stage, the writing flows, and the scene comes to life. Maybe it’s your character’s funny best friend … [or]her boyfriend. Maybe it’s even your character’s enemy. Consider LETTING this character steal the show. Change your story around so that this character becomes the focus.’


The 9 Types Of Unreliable Narrator, by Amanda Patterson


There is a long history of unreliable narrators in fiction. There is an even longer list in reality. They are called everyday people.

What is an unreliable narrator?

An unreliable narrator is a first-person narrator with a compromised viewpoint. (Read 10 Ways to Tell a Story – All about viewpoint, to understand what viewpoint means.)

Narrators serve as filters for stories. What narrators do not know or experience cannot be shown to the reader. The first-person narrator is powerful because that viewpoint is the only one we have to judge the events on the page. The reader believes that the narrator will be truthful and provide an accurate account of the story.

When we have an unreliable narrator, the reader cannot trust his or her version of the story.

Theses narrators may be insane, angry, strung-out on drugs or alcohol, naïve, foreign, criminals, liars, or simply younger than everybody else. They can be comical or absurd, tragic or serious, terrifying or surreal. The one thing they have in common is that they are deceptive.

At some point in a story, the reader realises the narrator cannot be trusted. Something happens – perhaps a lie is uncovered or an identity shown to be implausible. Readers are forced to form their own opinions about the events, and the characters’ motivations, in the story. If the author has not pulled off the initial deception with enough style or enticed readers with the power of the story, they may abandon the book.

Fiction relies on the willingness of readers to suspend belief. Although most of us do this, some readers jump ship when they realise that even the narrator of this make-believe world cannot be trusted. As Holden Caulfield tells us, ‘I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible.’ How can we believe anything he says

If unreliable narrators are badly crafted, they can be obvious, manipulative, misleading, confusing and pretentious. If they are well written, they can be powerful, clever and fascinating.


Here are nine types of unreliable narrators:

  1. The child. The narrator may be a different age or have completely different life experiences from the other people in the story. They tell their versions of a grown-up story through their limited understanding and experience. Examples: Jack from Room, Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn from The Adventures of Huckleberry Fynn.
  2. The outsider. The narrator may be prejudiced by race, class, politics, culture or gender. If somebody is brought up in a certain way, their version of events will be skewed according to that culture. Examples: Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Nelly from Wuthering Heights, Mrs de Winter from Rebecca, Invisible Man from Invisible Man.
  3. The crazy. The narrator may be going through a difficult adolescence, on drugs, or have an eating disorder: Lia from  Wintergirls, Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower,  Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye
  4. The crazier. The narrator may suffer from hallucinations or dementia, or flashbacks caused by post-traumatic stress. Examples: Pat Peoples from The Silver Linings Playbook, Pi Patel in Life of Pi, Chief Bromden from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Raoul Duke from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Narrator from Candy
  5.  The craziest. The narrator may have a mental illness or personality disorder: Examples: The anonymous narrator in The Fight Club, the unknown schoolgirl in The Moth Diaries, Barbara Covett in Notes on a Scandal,  Humbert Humbert from Lolita, Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, Barney Panofsky  from Barney’s Version, Portnoy from Portnoy’s Complaint, Teddy Daniels in Shutter Island, Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin.
  6. The innocent. The narrator may have a lower than normal intelligence, or an inability to deal with reality, or a learning disability. Examples: Forrest from Forrest Gump , Edward Bloom in Big Fish,  Christopher Boone from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,  Bartholomew Neil in The Good Luck of Right Now. 
  7. The criminal. The narrator may be lying to save himself, trying to be persuade you that what he has done is not wrong, or attempting to blame one of the other characters out of revenge. Examples: Nick and Amy from Gone Girl, John Dowell in The Good Soldier, Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects, Nina and Isobel in Talking to the Dead, Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, Dorothy L Sayers’s The Documents in the Case.
  8. The ghost. The narrator may be otherworldly. Examples: Dr Malcolm Crowe in The Sixth Sense, Jakabok Botch from Mister B. Gone, Screwtape from The Screwtape Letters, the ghost in The Turn Of The Screw, Lucifer in I, Lucifer
  9. The wilful liar. The narrator is just messing with the reader. This is the least successful type of unreliable narrator and is often the equivalent of someone waking up and declaring it was all a dream. Examples: Pandora in Big Brother, Briony Tallis in Atonement

Truth and lies in fiction—how to write an unreliable narrator, by Arlene Prunkl


I’m excited about this blog post. While most of my articles are on common topics that you can find information about all around the Internet, the subject of unreliable narrators doesn’t get a lot of ink. And that’s probably because relatively few fiction writers know about the literary device of unreliable narration, and if they do, they haven’t any notion of how to create it or use it to best effect. Recently, I’ve edited several authors who inadvertently created an unreliable narrator, but because they weren’t even aware they were doing it, it wasn’t handled as well as it might have been.

Definition of an unreliable narrator
In most fiction, one of the author’s primary goals is to create a strong, sympathetic, vulnerable, likable protagonist, a person readers can relate to, connect with, and root for, a character who creates empathy in readers and has them identifying with that character on multiple levels. In fact, I encourage creating this kind of relatable protagonist in several of my blog posts on fiction writing. The reader has certain expectations of this protagonist—primarily that he or she will be able to trust and believe in this character, and not be lied to or deceived.

But for a twist, if it suits your story, you can create what’s known as an unreliable narrator. This kind of protagonist (almost always written in the first person) will break that trust that’s typically understood between reader and narrator, will mislead and lie to readers, perhaps by omission, or tell them only half truths—whatever suits them and the unfolding events of the story. Unreliable narration can make for exciting plot developments and twists and lots of suspense for readers, who can never be sure whether what they’re reading is the truth, a partial truth, an omission of truth, or a lie. This kind of narrator will usually have values and perspectives that contrast sharply with the author’s, if those are known.

Because of all this, this kind of character is rarely fully likable and, in fact, often worthy of being despised by readers. An unreliable narrator may be a pathological liar, or a narcissist, or simply delusional, causing readers to feel unnerved or even to revolt in disgust. She may appear quite sane and be highly intelligent. To complicate things, an unreliable narrator may believe she’s telling the truth (for example, if she is psychologically unbalanced), but it’s up to the reader to figure out that she isn’t. The challenge, then, for an author is to write a story that will keep readers turning pages even though they may not feel connected to a contemptible protagonist or simply one they can’t always relate to.

Why use an unreliable narrator?
The best reason to use an unreliable narrator is to create suspense, to keep readers guessing, to keep them turning pages. But it won’t work to simply decide to turn your narrator into an unreliable one halfway through your story only because you want to create or add suspense. The unreliability needs to be built into the character’s psyche from the outset, or possibly develop as the plot unfolds, and the plot should be based on this unreliability. In other words, you’ll need to plan your story, even before you begin writing, around your protagonist’s unreliability.

How to use an unreliable narrator
An unreliable narrator is almost always written in the first person, making your protagonist the unreliable party. If you try to write an unreliable protagonist in the third person, that’s going to make you, the author, the unreliable party—and trust me, that likely won’t work. Readers may accept one of your characters as a liar, but they won’t accept being misled by you, the author.

Writing an unreliable narrator well is notoriously difficult. This is primarily because, as I’ve indicated, it’s hard to create a character to whom readers can relate and with whom they can empathize and at the same time have that character lie to readers. Most people suspect when they’re being deceived, and that creates an element of mistrust. So one of your goals is to create a character who has enough empathetic characteristics that readers will still relate to her to a certain degree even though they may not trust her entirely. Your second goal is to create a plot so compelling that readers will want to turn the pages even though they may not like your protagonist. And perhaps most importantly, your prose style must be so good, so smooth, so clever and captivating, that readers will want to read it for its sheer beauty. All in all, this is a tough assignment.

Finally, if you think you’ve got what it takes as a fiction writer to create an unreliable narrator, this literary device needs to be studied and mastered. The two most important things to keep in mind as you write are:

1. Immerse yourself in your protagonist’s psyche. Most regular protagonists have some characteristics of their authors—this is almost inevitable. Authors write their protagonists using the familiarity of their own mental state. However, your unreliable narrator likely won’t be much like you at all—she may feel more like a villain or antagonist. More than with any other type of protagonist, you’ll need to get completely out of your own head and immerse yourself in the alien head of your unreliable narrator, something easier said than done. What motivates her? What are her deepest fears and insecurities? In what ways do these things fuel her actions and the plot?

2. Remember a cardinal rule of fiction writing: you can’t cheat the reader. To avoid cheating your reader, you’ll need to inject clues, hints, and subtle indications throughout the story that show that the reader is being deceived (even while being thrown off the scent) so that he or she is not entirely taken off guard by the revelation at the end. Clues that allow the reader, if they want to go back and reread, to acknowledge, “Yes, there was a clue here and there that I was being deceived, but it was so well hidden that I just didn’t see it at the time. So I wasn’t being cheated after all.” Some of the best stories with unreliable narrators will have you wanting to read them a second time, in order to see which clues you missed the first time. But make no mistake, those clues need to be there, or the reader will feel tricked and ripped off.

Degrees of unreliable narration
Most memorable protagonists in well-written fiction have some degree of unreliability. That’s because our human perceptions are unique to each of us; we see things through our own often skewed perspectives, and in ways others may deem unreliable. So if that’s the case, isn’t all first-person narration unreliable? Well, yes. But readers will forgive a certain degree of unreliability in all fiction characters because they’ll know your characters are just human, after all. However, deliberately setting out to use unreliable narration as a literary device is something different, something taken a step further than ordinary human unreliability.

All readers engage in fiction with a certain level of suspension of disbelief; that is, they’re prepared, willing, and happy to believe much of what a narrator is telling them, to stretch their imaginations while immersed in your fictional world. But when writing an unreliable narrator, be careful of crossing the line to a point where readers can no longer suspend their disbelief. And it’s a fine line, which is part of what makes writing an unreliable narrator so difficult. If the reader begins to feel more cheated than they feel is fair, or if the protagonist turns into a caricature, or if the plot twists turn ludicrous, you’ll lose your readers. Make a habit of asking yourself of any scene you write, will my readers think this is believable and fair, even after they learn they’ve been lied to?

Examples of unreliable narrators
One of the best things you can do to learn more about this literary device is to read well-written stories with unreliable protagonists. A marvelous thriller with not one but two unreliable narrators is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (Crown Publishers, 2012). It’s an astonishing page turner, a story about a couple, Nick and Amy, who alternate first-person narrative as they each relate the details of their failing marriage through their own damaged perspectives. As you read, you don’t know who to despise more, Nick or Amy, yet you’re still hoping to like at least one of them just a little. Flynn is almost a magician in how she has you not wanting to put the book down despite making you suffer these two narcissistic, sociopathic characters. She plants clues and keeps the reader guessing just enough to make the reading experience tantalizing and not frustrating. I must admit, though, that I found the ending somewhat disappointing, and I feel that’s partly because it’s very difficult to create a satisfying conclusion with two unlikable characters. Still, I could hardly put the book down until the end.

More well-known examples:
Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
• Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
• Nelly and Lockwood in Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
• Lucy Snowe in Villette by Charlotte Brontë
• Huck in Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
• Humbert Humbert in Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
• Screwtape in The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
• Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
• Briony Tallis in Atonement by Ian McEwan
• Alex in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
• Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
• Dr. Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
• Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
• Marta Bjornstad in How to Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman
• Patrick Mateman in American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
• Pat Peoples in The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick
• Various characters in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Pitching to agents and publishers
Even done well, writing an unreliable narrator story is a risk when it comes to pitching and marketing your book. It is a sad but unavoidable fact that, to a great extent, unlikable protagonists do not go over well with agents and publishers. I found it fascinating to read on one acquisitions editor’s blog about how bad she felt that she couldn’t acquire more manuscripts with unlikable narrators. The problem, she said, was that those books just don’t sell as well as others. Readers want likable protagonists, and if they’re disappointed with a protagonist who’s not very relatable, that book will invariably receive poor reviews—at least poorer reviews than those with likable narrators. This editor lamented that she had to turn down manuscripts she would have loved to accept, solely because she knew they wouldn’t pass muster with her sales department. She went on to speculate over whether Gone Girl would have even been accepted by a big publisher had it been Gillian Flynn’s first fiction and had she not already been a successful, established author with her first two novels.

If you think you have what it takes to write an unreliable narrator, then you may well be able to create some very compelling fiction. But tread cautiously. If you decide to write an unreliable narrator, there must be a solid reason for it, a purpose that drives the character and story arcs. A character who lies for the sake of lying isn’t going to add much to the integrity of your story. And above all, prepare yourself. Before you undertake the difficult task of writing an unreliable narrator, study this literary device thoroughly so you’re ready for all the challenges it presents.

8 Tips to Writing Unreliable Narrators, by Deb Caletti


The unreliable narrator … Ah, don’t you love that unsettling, page-turning, blockbuster-making literary device? An unreliable narrator makes for the bad boy of novels—ensuring a delicious but uneasy read, an on-the-edge wondering of what might happen next.

Usually, we feel we’re in good hands with whatever main characters we’re spending time with between the covers. We can count on them, we think, to tell us the truth. But then comes a protagonist you’re just not sure you can entirely trust, and the dark and compelling journey begins. How, as writers, do we take our own readers on such a ride?

Every human being is, to some degree, an unreliable narrator. When we tell our stories to others, and even when we tell our stories to ourselves, we create our own version of events and of our lives as a whole. We don’t necessarily mean to deceive. But we can see and understand our experiences only from our own viewpoint—a shifting viewpoint at that. Facing the truth is a messy business. It involves denial, and pride, and the fact that understanding takes time; it relies on perspective (or lack of it), and the pesky fact that we can only face the truth we can stand to face at any given moment.

Every one of our characters is unreliable, too, whether we intend it or not. They can see only through their own, flawed eyes, same as us. Their singular opinions, blind spots and insights make them uniquely themselves and help lend your work the all-important “voice.” Our characters’ innate unreliability gives them the layers that make them realistic. When creating my own unreliable narrator, Dani Keller in He’s Gone, I didn’t see her as being willfully dishonest in the way she tells her story. I saw her as struggling with a hard truth that she hadn’t even entirely admitted to herself yet.

And then I turned it up a notch.

Because, while every realistic character should and will be unreliable in part, there are times when you want that unreliability to do more than paint the shadings of a convincing character: You want it to propel plot. There’s nothing like a question in the reader’s mind to get the pages turning, and when the question is about who the narrator actually even is, you can guarantee a need to find out.

Whether you want your characters to be deliberately deceitful or not, crafting an unreliable narrator has to be done with deliberate care. Like any relationship, the one between reader and writer requires respect and trust, and if you lose either by going too far, your reader is likely to break it off and move on. The aim in creating an unreliable narrator is to generate just enough suspicion, to withhold just enough information, without losing the reader’s connection to the character.

So, how do you let the reader know that there may be more to the character—and to the story at hand—than even the character himself might admit?

Here are some tips:

1. Make your character a liar.

Lying: It’s the most necessary element of an unreliable narrator, and may even be as close to a definition of the term as you can get. An unreliable narrator—well, he can’t be trusted to tell the truth. One way or another, he has to deceive the reader. The most obvious approach, then, is to make it who he is. Holden Caulfield, one of literature’s most well-known unreliable narrators, admits that there are things he doesn’t want to talk about in the very first paragraph of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. He’s told his brother only half the story, he confesses, and calls himself “the most terrific liar you ever saw.”

Paul Lohman, the voice that drives Herman Koch’s The Dinner, also immediately warns us not to trust him. In the first lines of the book, he states that he won’t reveal what restaurant the titular dinner takes place in, in case people will go to see if he’s there. Mark Haddon takes another approach in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. By the time his autistic narrator, Christopher Boone, tells us that he cannot lie and that everything he has written is true, we’ve come to understand how impaired and literal his perceptions are. We cannot believe his statement, because his truth is not likely to be ours.

When your main character is a liar, the reader immediately knows to be on guard. It’s insta-unease. Whether your character admits this fault outright, contradicts himself regularly in the narrative, or proves to be a liar by his actions, dishonesty is the hallmark of an unreliable narrator.

2. Lie by omission, too.

Rosemary, the unreliable narrator in Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, also lets us know that we should be wary of her—not because she tells lies, but because she’s withholding critical information. She tells us that she’s spent most of her life carefully not talking about her brother and sister. Certain pieces of the narrative are delicately cloaked, as well, so that the big reveal about her sister comes as a shock. “Three children. One story. The only reason I’m the one telling it is because I’m the one not currently in a cage,” Fowler writes, and we are left to wonder what “cage” even really means. Is this a literal cage? A metaphorical one? The lack of clarity lets us know she’s keeping things from us.

In Lionel Shriver’s disturbing We Need to Talk About Kevin, Eva Khatchadourian is also holding back the facts. We are left to wonder about her husband in the letters she writes to him. Where he is and why they are separated are both obviously and deftly sidestepped, so that we’re sure she’s keeping mum. In my own He’s Gone, Dani, too, withholds information. She struggles to remember each moment of the night her husband vanishes, but only later admits to having taken pills that inhibited that memory.

When your character hints that he knows more than he tells, reveals the truth a little later than he should, or has gaps in memory, your unreliable narrator can successfully shake the reader’s trust.

3. Muddy the motivations.

In Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Nora is intrigued by the Shahid family. Or, wait—is she obsessed? We hear how close Nora is to them, and yet much of her relationship with them is based in fantasy. She loves them, but doesn’t that love seem ever so slightly … vicious? Is she out to help them or harm them? Her muddy motives set us questioning, and leave us unsettled. We’re not exactly sure where she stands.

In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Eva also appears to be fiercely honest but proves to be increasingly disturbed as she reveals her complex thoughts about her son and motherhood. Is she someone who has loved her son and done her best with a child who was inherently evil? Or has her own rejection and dislike of him contributed to the outcome? Malicious or maternal—Shriver gives us both in Eva.

Provide your narrator with conflicting desires and disparate drives. Keep the reader guessing about your character’s true mindset. When those motives shift, so does the ground under your reader’s feet.

4. Make your protagonist more clever than she seems.

In Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn paints both Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott with an innocent brush—at first. Even if their stories of married life don’t match up, Nick is initially sympathetic, if not harshly straightforward, and Amy is all innocence, if not girlish and naive. The first words we hear from her are giddy and musical: “Tra and la!” Is that a person capable of doing any real harm, save from annoying you to death? Would those words ever come out of the mouth of a sociopath? We think not, until Amy’s intricately planned treasure-hunt traps are slowly revealed.

Another example of sly and surprising narrators can be found in Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. This is a story that’s told from a host of unreliable narrators, all of whom are a bit eccentric, dramatic and even flaky, the kind of attributes you’re sure will add up only to mishaps and misunderstandings—that is, until shrewd purpose and calculated scheming are divulged.

When you craft a seemingly guileless narrator who hides true cunning, you have an unreliable narrator your reader has mistakenly fallen for.

5. Use your secondary characters.

It’s true in our own lives, and it’s true in our fiction—catching someone in a lie can be more unsettling than having someone admit to one. A reader can “catch” a narrator in a lie through a writer’s use of secondary characters. Most simply, a secondary character can reveal that he’s the victim of your narrator’s lie. Better yet, a secondary character can reveal a truth that your narrator hasn’t yet told. In The Dinner, Paul’s brother, Serge, reminds Paul in dialogue about a shocking wrongdoing of his from the past. Since Paul never mentioned that little fact, he’s been caught.

The manner in which secondary characters treat your protagonist can also speak to her unreliability. Their personal histories with your narrator may expose a side to the narrator the reader hasn’t seen. Whether it’s a relative, a neighbor or a law enforcement officer, a secondary character with the inside scoop can alter a reader’s perspective. Christopher’s arrest and his treatment by the police in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time suggest he might not be as innocent as he seems. A police interrogation also serves to expose a lie in He’s Gone. Whether it’s through casual dialogue, a confrontation or a dramatic event, consider how your own secondary characters might help convey who your protagonist really is—much to the shock of your unsuspecting reader.

6. Add in an unpredictable act.

When a thoughtful, responsible or otherwise dependable character suddenly does something highly questionable, he becomes unreliable. Imagine that your previously predictable neighbor, known for mowing the lawn every Saturday, lights it on fire instead. In real life, this would forever change the way you saw him—and would also make you eye him carefully whenever you met at the mailboxes. What is he truly capable of? Who can say?

So it is in fiction. An erratic move on the part of your narrator will handily unnerve your reader.

In We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Rosemary is a kind and careful person. But after she throws a milk glass on the floor of a restaurant, causing a scene that gets her arrested, we’re never quite sure just what else she might do. Nora, the “straight-A, straight-laced, good daughter” teacher narrating The Woman Upstairs, also does the unpredictable when she disrobes in her friend Sirena Shahid’s art installation. In He’s Gone, Dani, also a thoughtful, straight-A good daughter, heaves the clay bust of her missing husband off the end of their dock on Lake Union.

It’s worth noting, too, that your narrator doesn’t have to be good to catch readers off guard with something bad. Instead, the shock might come when the bad do worse than your readers ever suspected. What’s important is that some surprising, revealing act makes your reader view your protagonist with heightened suspicion.

7. Make your protagonist a bad guy … or don’t.

Quite a few unreliable narrators are unlikable and even sociopathic. You wouldn’t want to have dinner with Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, or with Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, and even the bestselling story of the dinner with Paul Lohman makes a reader squirm. Often, an unreliable narrator is a manipulator, a narcissist or a person who’s losing (or has lost) her mind.

But not every unreliable narrator is evil, dangerous, unhinged or even just plain unsympathetic. Some are simply telling their own truth as they see it, or are working understandably hard to justify a bad situation. Their reasons for being less than forthright might come from a personal struggle, a trauma, memory loss, a hesitation to divulge family secrets, or their own slowly dawning acceptance of their situation.

Even nice people lie sometimes, and even good human beings hide hard truths.

Make your unreliable narrator a deliciously dark villain, if you wish. But also remember that a likable andunreliable character makes for especially complex fiction, and for a realistic, compelling read, as well.

8. Keep it believable.

Fiction is most powerful when it comes from an honest place—even when your narrator doesn’t. When you’re toying with the trust of your readers, it’s especially important to keep it believable.

When Rosemary throws that milk glass and gets arrested, the scene works because it’s a milk glass and not a machine gun. The small moments with Paul Lohman at dinner are so utterly convincing—his insecurities, his feelings about everything from corn salad to a waiter’s pinky hovering just over his food—that his larger acts feel credible. Holden Caulfield’s voice is so emotionally on point that both his past and present make sense. Stay in the realm of the real with telling detail and authentic voice, and don’t drift to melodrama.

The unreliable narrator is an effective technique that makes for such a rich reading experience because we are all familiar with our own deceptions, confusions and egos, and with the times we wish the truth were different. The humanity of your protagonist is key. If the little lies and the tunnel vision and the character flaws that you create are those we know from our own lives, your reader will stay connected to your character. Finding the truth in the untruths will elevate your story. An unreliable narrator is not just a device, but also the skilled portrayal of a realistically flawed human being.

Interior Monologue, by Richard Nordquist



In both fiction and nonfiction, an interior monologue is the expression of a character‘s thoughts, feelings, and impressions in a narrative.

An interior monologue may be either direct or indirect:

  • direct, in which the author seems not to exist and the interior self of the character is given directly, as though the reader were overhearing an articulation of the stream of thought and feeling flowing through the character’s mind;
  • indirect, in which the author serves as selector, presenter, guide, and commentator.

(W. Harmon and H. Holman, A Handbook to Literature, 2006)


“I looked into the reception room. It was empty of everything but the smell of dust. I threw up another window, unlocked the communicating door and went into the room beyond. Three hard chairs and a swivel chair, flat desk with a glass top, five green filing cases, three of them full of nothing, a calendar and a framed license bond on the wall, a phone, a washbowl in a stained wood cupboard, a hatrack, a carpet that was just something on the floor, and two open windows with net curtains that puckered in and out like the lips of a toothless old man sleeping.

“The same stuff I had had last year, and the year before that. Not beautiful, not gay, but better than a tent on the beach.”
(Raymond Chandler, The High Window, 1942)

“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself. Do not come and worry me with your hints that it is time to shut the shop and be gone.
I would willingly give all my money that you should not disturb me but let me sit on and on, silent, alone.”
(Virginia Woolf, The Waves, 1931)


“[I]nterior monologue is appropriate with nonfiction, provided there’s fact to back it up. We can’t get into a character’s head because we suppose, or imagine, or deduce that’s what he or she would be thinking. We have to know!

“See how Tom Wolfe does it in his book about the space program, The Right Stuff. At the outset he explained that his style was developed to grab the readers’ attention, to absorb them. . . . He wanted to get into the heads of his characters, even if this was nonfiction. And so, at an astronauts’ press conference, he quotes a reporter’s question on who was confident about coming back from space. He describe the astronauts looking at one another and hoisting their hands in the air. Then, he’s into their heads:

It really made you feel like an idiot, raising your hand this way. If you didn’t think you were ‘coming back,’ then you would really have to be a fool or a nut to have volunteered at all. . . .

He goes on for a full page, and in writing this way Wolfe has transcended usual nonfiction style; he’s offered characterization and motivation, two fiction writing techniques that can bring the reader in lockstep with the writer.

Interior monologue provides a chance to ‘see inside’ the heads of characters, and we know that the more familiar a reader is with a character, the more the reader embraces that character.”

(William Noble, “Writing Nonfiction–Using Fiction.” The Portable Writer’s Conference, 2nd ed., ed. by Stephen Blake Mettee. Quill Driver, 2007)


“Sentence fragments may be treated as interior monologue (direct speech) or regarded as part of an adjoining stretch of free indirect speech.

“Interior monologue may also contain traces of non-verbal thought. While more formal interior monologue uses the first-person pronoun and finite verbs in the present tense,

He [Stephen] lifted his feet up from the suck [of the sand] and turned back by the mole of boulders. Take all, keep all. My soul walks with me, form of forms. [. . .] The flood is following me. I can watch it flow past from here.
(Ulysses iii; Joyce 1993: 37; my emphasis)

In Ulysses James Joyce conducts more radical experiments with the form of the interior monologue, especially in his representation of the thoughts of Leopold Bloom and his wife, Molly. He eschews full sentences with finite verbs in favour of incomplete, often verbless syntagms which simulate Bloom’s mental leaps as he associates ideas:

Hymes jotting down something in his notebook. Ah, the names. But he knows them all. No: coming to me.

— I am just taking the names, Hynes said below his breath. What is your christian name? I’m not sure.

In this example, Bloom’s impressions and speculations are confirmed by Hyne’s remarks.”

(Monika Fludernik, An Introduction to Narratology. Routledge, 2009)


“Although stream of consciousness and interior monologue are often used interchangeably, the former is the more general term. Interior monologue, strictly defined, is a type of stream of consciousness. As such, it presents a character’s thoughts, emotions, and fleeting sensations to the reader. Unlike stream of consciousness more generally, however, the ebb and flow of the psyche revealed by interior monologue typically exists at a pre- or sublinguistic level, where images and the connotations they evoke supplant the literal denotative meanings of words.”

(Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, 2nd ed. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003)

Inner monologue examples: Writing characters’ secret lives


Internal or inner monologue is a useful literary device. Dialogue reveals character relationships, their converging or competing goals. Inner monologue gives readers an x-ray view of characters’ more private feelings and dilemmas. Read examples of inner monologue that illustrate how to use it well, along with tips:

First, what is ‘inner monologue’?

A ‘monologue’ literally means ‘speaking alone’, if we go back to the word’s roots. In a play, especially in Shakespeare, a monologue (such as when the villain Iago in Othello expresses his wicked plans to the audience) is often used to reveal a character’s secret thoughts or intentions. In prose fiction, inner monologue is used more typically to reveal a character’s private impressions, desires, frustrations or dilemmas.

How and why might you use internal monologue?

1. Use inner monologue to show characters’ unspoken thoughts

In many cases, your protagonist, if they’re also the narrator, might simply state how they feel in narration. For example, ‘I was apprehensive when I approached the derelict building.’ Or, if you’re using third person limited point of view, ‘Luisa was apprehensive when she approached the building.’ These approaches to show characters’ feelings are fine. Yet you can also create immediacy, an engaging sense of a character’s state, by making characters’ actual thoughts intrude on the scene.

Here’s an example from David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The character Luisa Rey, an investigative journalist, has found out about a dangerous environmental coverup. This example occurs when her boss is berating her for missing a meeting:

Grelsch glares at her.

‘I got a lead, Dom.’
‘You got a lead.’
I can’t batter you, I can’t fool you, I can only hook your curiosity. ‘I phoned the precinct where Sixsmith’s case was processed.’

Here, we read Luisa’s thoughts about her boss while she’s in trouble. The monologue reveals:

  • The power Grelsch has over Luisa as his employee – it shows Luisa’s awareness of the balance of power in this conversation
  • Luisa’s knack for using stories to get herself out of trouble

Inner monologue here, by revealing Luisa’s unspoken thoughts mid-dialogue, adds to her character as well as illustrating her relationship with her boss.

2: Describe others from a character’s POV using internal monologue

When your protagonist is the first-person narrator in your story, they can describe other characters simply in narration. For example, your character might see a frail looking man and narrate ‘he looked like he had a week to live.’ But in third person limited, a little internal monologue can be a useful filtering device for slipping into a character’s private consciousness and describing their impressions.

Take this example, also from Cloud Atlas:

The elevator doors close just as Luisa Rey reaches them, but the unseen occupant jams them with his cane. ‘Thank you,’ says Luisa to the old man. ‘Glad the age of chivalry isn’t totally dead.’
He gives a grave nod of acknowledgment.
Hell, Luisa thinks, he looks like he’s been given a week to live.

Why is this internal monologue effective? Firstly, it gives us a keen sense of Luisa’s voice (her use of the curse word ‘hell’ indicating her ‘tough cookie’ persona). Secondly, it succinctly reveals a key detail about the other character’s appearance.

When you’re writing in third person narration, you can use italics like this to take us deeper into a character’s mind. This will reveal their impressions in the moment. [To get constructive help with POV and narration in your story, join Now Novel.]

3: Show characters’ private dilemmas

Inner monologue is useful for showing characters’ private dilemmas, their internal conflicts. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is full of good examples, because the protagonist Rodion Raskolnikov commits a crime, murdering a pawnbroker. Throughout the novel, we witness Raskolnikov’s anxious, paranoid state of mind. Dostoevsky uses internal monologue expertly to show his character’s complex fears and choices.

In this scene, Raskolnikov is about to make his getaway after committing the crime. Note how even though the author narrates the passage in third person, the wording makes it feel as though we are in the character’s mind:

But at the same instant several men talking loudly and fast began noisily mounting the stairs […] Filled with despair he went straight to meet them, feeling ‘come what must!’ If they stopped him – all was lost; if they let him pass – all was lost too; they would remember him […] they were only a flight from him – and suddenly deliverance! A few steps from him, on the right, there was an empty flat with the door wide open, the flat on the second floor where the painters had been at work, and which, as though for his benefit, they had just left.

The internal monologue shows the character weighing different outcomes – meeting the men on the stairs or not. This gives the scene tension and immediacy (a sense of engaging involvement in the action).

Use internal monologue similarly, when needed, to show your characters at important decision-making crossroads.

4: Reveal characters’ self perceptions

As thinking, questioning beings, we often engage in self-talk, reflecting on our actions. For example, if you were to knock over and break a glass, you might say to yourself ‘why are you so clumsy?’

Inner monologue in a story may be used to reveal a character’s self-speak and preoccupations. For example, in a story where a character’s primary or secondary struggle is accepting their body, there may be a scene where they’re looking in a mirror:

He turned and stood at an angle, sucking in his belly. Godhow did I get to this?

Or, imagine a character preparing for a job interview:

He lifted his chin, pulling the knot in his tie a little tighter. You’ve got this. He winked. Stop, definitely don’t wink at them. He pulled a stern face. No, you look like you’re interviewing to be someone’s damn body guard.

These lines convey that the character is nervous about the interview and self-conscious about how he will come across visually.

5: Use to show a character’s personal associations

People often use ‘inner monologue’ to mean ‘stream of consciousness’. Yet stream of consciousness is a specific literary technique. We associate it with Modernist authors such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce.

Take, for example, this passage of internal monologue in Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse:

But what have I done with my life? Thought Mrs. Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making white circles on it. ‘William, sit by me,’ she said. ‘Lily,’ she said, wearily, ‘over there.’ They had that – Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle – she, only this – an infinitely long table and plates and knives […] And meanwhile she waited, passively, for someone to answer her, for something to happen. But this is not a thing, she thought, ladling out soup, that one says.

It’s clear from Ramsay’s inner monologue that she has mixed feelings about the confinement of her life to serving dinners and entertaining guests. This piece of monologue suggests Ramsay associates domestic life with lack (‘she, only this – an infinitely long table’).

Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness – and by extension, inner monologue – is effective because we see characters’ complex psychology. Note, too, how Woolf:

  • Blends inner monologue with dialogue and descriptive detail: We see the ‘white circles’ the plates make; the people seated around the table
  • Anchors internal monologue in three-dimensional action: We read Ramsay’s thoughts as she takes her place at the head of the table and serves everyone.

If you use stream of consciousness to reveal a character’s private desires or frustrations, remember to blend it with action and setting too. This ensures a balance between characters’ hidden inner lives and the material world around them, along with the cause and effect of their words and deeds.

The Complete Guide to Interior Monologue


The Essential Ingredient of Hard Choices, by Chuck Wendig

N.B. This is a sanitized version of the essay by Chuck Wendig; please see the original for the more colorful Wendig.


I knew a guy named Gil who faced an incredibly difficult decision: his wife and his teenage daughter were both in the hospital at the same time with failing kidneys, the wife from cancer, the daughter from the trauma of a car accident. Grim coincidence, indeed. Both required a kidney transplant, both put on the list requiring donor organs. But Gil, of course, was a perfect match for his daughter, and as it so happened, also for his wife. Trick is, Gil only had two kidneys — he wasn’t like, loaded down with extra ******* kidneys, so he could only give one away. He could give a kidney to his wife, or he could give the organ to his daughter. The one whom he refused would be consigned to wait, ideally getting a kidney from a donor, but that person could also potentially die in the interim.

This was complicated by, well, complications. His wife was older, in her 40s, so was it wiser to give the kidney to his daughter, who had so much more life to live? But the daughter also had other trauma from the accident, and a kidney would not entirely ‘fix’ her — whereas the wife’s cancer had not yet metastasized, and so his kidney would go a greater distance, so to speak, if transplanted into her. Then one wonders, what are the emotional responses? If both survive, will one resent him? Could both? If one died, what would the response be from the survivor?

Needless to say, it’s a lot to weigh.

It is a very hard choice.

Which did he choose?

Neither, because Gil isn’t ******* real. I just made him up. I don’t think anyone is even really named Gil. That’s just folklore, like Bigfoot. We’ve all told the campfire tales about CREEPY GIL THE KIDNEY DONOR, haven’t we? THE KIDNEY IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE CAR, oh no!

But really, who gives a ****? The point remains the same:

Hard choices are interesting to us. And they are interesting to us in the context of fiction, particularly. Which means they are incredibly useful to you, as an author. Hard Choices provide an excellent, versatile tool in your narrative toolbox.

(Also, I’ve gone and tattooed HARD CHOICES across the knuckles of both of my hands. Whenever I lead a writing workshop, I jump through a paper sheet of bad prose dressed in a wrestling onesie, and then I punch the air with both fists — *punch* “HARD” *punch* “CHOICES” *kicks the air* “LET’S WRITE SOME ************* STORIES,” I yell. It’s really successful and you can hire me to motivate you.)

Consider, if you will —

A hard choice provides:

  1. conflict, because it puts the character in conflict with herself and with whatever consequences will come
  2. mystery, because we the reader do not know what the character will choose, and what calculus will lead to that choice in particular
  3. drama, because it will generate scenes of discord between characters, not all of whom will be happy with the choice or the decision
  4. lingering questions, because the reader will be left wondering what exactly shewould have done in exactly the same situation
  5. fun for you, because not only do you get to grapple with the choice on behalf of the characters, you also get to imagine how implementing this choice will make the readership squirm as if their ******************************

Of course, there are tricks to using hard choices in fiction, and you might find it useful to hold onto a few key guide-ropes in the process —

  1. hard choices cannot exist on every page or you dull their impact, it’s not like Gil can have a LIFE OR DEATH, WIFE OR DAUGHTER, HOLY **** WHO GETS THE KIDNEY moment every chapter, sometimes the fiction is about building the narrative infrastructure that gets youto the hard choice
  2. the choice has to be sensible in the context of the story, and the story should feel like it’s leading up to it, not that it’s dropped out of nowhere like a ******* anvil onto the reader’s head (clong)
  3. it should also be tonally appropriate — if you’re writing a light-hearted comedy then suddenly switch gears to some tragic gut-ripping Sophie’s Choice, the reader will have narrative whiplash
  4. the hard choice should actually be complicated— it’s all-too-easy to bunt that wiffle ball and offer the character a false hard choice, and trust me, the reader will smell your weakness like poop on a shoe; if the choice is, GIL CAN EITHER SAVE THIS BASKET OF BABIES OR HE CAN INSTEAD EAT A BURRITO, one assumes that unless Gil is a raging burrito-hound, he’ll make the right choice and skip dinner to rescue the baby-basket
  5. a hard choice speaks to the character, and isn’t just external plot
  6. a hard choice always, always has consequences — emotionally, yes, but also consequences that resonate outward from the world or from other characters
  7. further, those consequences — the stakes (as in, what can be won, lost or incurred) — must be known at least in part before the character makes the choice

So, there you go.

Whether you’re doing NaNiWriMo or just writing a book because, *********, you can, feel free to use HARD CHOICES to juice your narrative and give it some teeth-gritting oomph.

*punches the air*


*punches the air again*



*falls down*

*breaks coccyx*

Let’s write some ************* stories?