Characters are an essential ingredient in any novel.  But what are the attributes of a character we like to read about?  It seems to me that there are several possibilities:

  • There are characters with whom we, as the reader, identify: we feel that he or she ‘is a bit like me’.
  • There are characters who are different and who stimulate our curiosity: we think, ‘I wonder how it would feel to be like him/her’
  • There are characters for whom we feel sympathy: ‘there, but for the grace of God, go I!’
  • And, of course, there are characters whom, for various reasons, we decide we don’t like, and we keep reading about them hoping that they will eventually be punished in some way.  We will probably be quite disappointed if these ‘bad characters’ triumph at the end.

 I have the impression that it is quite fashionable, nowadays, to write and read about deeply flawed characters.  The one that springs to mind is not a modern character, but he is a good example: Heathcliff, the central figure in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, a novel which was published in 1847.  The only redeeming feature about Heathcliff, in my mind, is that Catherine Earnshaw falls in love with him.  But, throughout Wuthering Heights,Heathcliff’s attitude and behaviour toward the other characters is reprehensible.  Heathcliff becomes a tragic figure with whom I, for one, have very little sympathy.  Still, it has to be said that he plays a dominant role in the novel, bringing misfortune to most of the characters around him.

 I find it difficult to invest emotionally in writing about deeply flawed characters.  In my two thrillers (one about to be published; the other just finished) there is an evil central character, but he is just evil.  I haven’t tried to develop excuses for his nature; I have only tried – in one case – to provide reasons for it.  Perhaps I am unforgiving, but I feel that anyone as bad as that doesn’t deserve to be made into a tragic figure.

 In Sin & Contrition, there are two characters that most readers dislike, but in each case there are at least a few redeeming things about them.

There is Bettina, the daughter if immigrant parents, who is determined to do better in life – socially and financially – than her parents.  She works hard to become the owner of a chain of lingerie shops, having never graduated from university.  She doesn’t marry the man she loves; instead, she keeps him as her lover, while otherwise remaining loyal to her husband.  She ignores her children, who manage to cheat their way into university and success.  She abandons her Catholic faith to join a more socially prominent church.  She argues with her brother about the care of her aging parents.  Still, she remains loyal to her friends, and she does repent some of her misdeeds.  She’s honest about some of her flaws, and one senses that she has limits to how far she will go.

There is Gary, the son of a working class mother and an absent father.  He has a bullying disposition, and he wants to make a name for himself.  He puts himself through Penn State, and has a disastrous affair with a fellow student.  Gary embarks on a career as a state politician, meets and marries a woman from a good family, but he is unable to resist starting an affair with another state representative.  His wife leaves him; he sinks into alcoholism, but, once rescued, he exercises restraint, is re-united with his wife and is elected to the US House of Representatives.  But he refuses to provide funds to the father who abandoned him, and is unable to face his mother’s dementia.  One feels that Gary will always be Gary, but at least he has learned from his mistakes, and he becomes a reasonably useful and honest citizen.

 (For more information about my novels see


Each writer is supposed to have a genre.  (Genre – adapted from the  French – is “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.”)  I’m afraid I  don’t have a genre, as yet.  But then, I have to confess, this is typical of me.  For example, at university I had difficulty deciding on a major (principal field of study).  I started out wanting to do  architecture; then, I changed to mathematics, and after taking a course in set theory (which I didn’t understand at all), I ended up as a physics major.  Or, more recently, consider my track record as a management consultant.  I’ve worked in the health, financial services, retail, manufacturing, technology, engineering, and business services sectors.  And in terms of my assignments, they have included business process improvement, cost reduction, strategy, sales and marketing, service improvement, team building, culture change, and coaching/mentoring.  Not much focus there.  “Jack of all trades and master of none,” you might say.

Does it matter?

It didn’t really matter for me as a management consultant, although my colleagues considered me a little bit strange.  I generally took the assignments that clients wanted to give me, and made a decent living.  Besides, I rather enjoyed the changes that lack of specialisation brought with it.

But, for a writer, the situation is somewhat different.  The reputation of a writer is very clearly linked to his or her genre: romance, science fiction, mystery, etc.  People will continue to buy a particular author’s books, because they like them and they know what to expect with the next one.  J K Rowling and the Harry Potter series are good examples.

So, what about my books?  Well, the first one, Fishing in Foreign Seas, is in two genres: romance and business.  The second, Sin & Contrition, is a series of morality tales.  The third, which is about to be published, Efraim’s Eye, is a romantic thriller.  The fourth, which I’ve just finished, is another thriller about the drugs trade in Afghanistan and Iran.  I’m just getting started on a new novel, which is written in the first person, and is an interesting (I hope) philosophical biography, but not an autobiography.  So is there a theme that runs through these five?  Well, yes, there is temptation: not just sexual temptation, but human temptation; there is sex and there is religious/spiritual controversy.  I suspect that those themes would not constitute any recognised genre. 

(Efraim’s Eye was published 24 September 2012.)

(For more information about my novels, see

I rather enjoyed writing the two thrillers, but the trouble with most thrillers – from my point of view – is that the genre isn’t really suitable for promoting serious thoughts about what it is to be human.  Guns and debates about spirituality, values and morality don’t naturally fit well together.  But, I think most educated readers enjoy both excitement and some intellectual challenge in what they read.

So, I’ve got to keep working on defining my genre!

What does it take to be a writer?

I don’t pretend  to have all the answers to this question, and it is a question I often think about.  But, I suppose it’s fair to say that I’m learning about what it takes, and trying to build the skills that I’m lacking.  Having said this, let me give you my current thinking about writing skills.

First of all, a writer has to be fluent in the language in which s/he is writing.  In my opinion, an extensive vocabulary and a thorough understanding of the rules of grammar and syntax are essential.  Vocabulary is important so that the writer can select the words that convey just the right nuance of what she is trying to say.  Because good writing is literature, making grammatical errors can make the author seem illiterate.  And if grammar is about the use of words and phrases, syntax, which is about the structure of sentences, is also very important.  Of course, the rules of grammar and syntax can vary from language to language.  In German, for example, the verb is often placed at the end of a sentence, after the subject and object.

It isn’t just about writing in one’s mother tongue.  For my two step daughters, their mother tongue is Italian, but from the ages of 7 and 9 they have been immersed in English: at school, with their friends, and their step-father.  Now, they are both totally fluent in English, and their mother says that their Italian vocabulary and grammar has not kept up.  So, if they ever decide to write, they will probably do so in English.

So much for the universal requirement to be a writer.  If one is  going to be a writer of fiction, several other skills become important: creativity and voice.  Creativity is about the ability to present interesting and different characters and situations.  Having a ‘fertile imagination’ would be a part of the creative skill, but, as I’ve said in other posts, the characters and situations should be interesting and different, but they should also be credible.  If they are not credible, the writer will lose the interest of her readers.  If the situations and characters are not interesting and different, they may well be just boring!  Voice is about the projection of the characters and situations onto the page.  It’s about the use of language to make them come alive.  Part of voice is the ability to project feelings, emotions, personalities and values: subtley but clearly.  Voice is also about being a good story-teller, about setting the scene so that it seems real to the reader, and about making the reader reluctant to put the book down.

As our publishers are constantly reminding us, being successful as a writer of fiction is about more than language skills and writing techniques.  It is also about marketing.  Successful writers have niches that they serve.  J K Rowling, the creator of Harry Potter, specialised in imaginative books for young people.  It will be interesting to see how she does in writing adult fiction.  The relationship between the writer and his niche is essentially a marketing relationship.  The writer understands that niche market sector, and he presents a brand that the market sector comes to know and love.  The author, whenever s/he is interviewed or appears before live media, is always selling her brand to her market sector.  (So a successful writer is also a good salesman.)

Finally, there is that illusive but all-important commodity: luck.  It’s about meeting the right person at the right time.  That chance meeting (all else being equal) can make the difference between a best seller and an also-ran!

Writing Schedule

I am often asked, “How much time do you spend writing in a day?” and “What is your writing schedule?”

The answers are 4 – 5 hours per day; I write in the late morning and throughout the afternoon.

I have read about writers who lock themselves away for the entire day.  I couldn’t possibly do that, because when I try to write for more than about two hours at a stretch, I become mentally fatigued, and the quality of my writing declines.  My imagination and my critical skills must both be keen.  Imagination is essential to achieving an interesting, creative output.  And critical skills must also be operational to avoid putting something down which is ‘good enough’.  I find that when I am mentally tired, my imagination is less fertile and instead of being critical of my output, I get lazy.  So, every hour of two, I take a break.  I go out to do the food shopping, or I work on by blog, or check my email, or pay the bills or I play spider solitaire: anything which doesn’t use my brain in the same way as writing.

My wife and I have coffee at 7 am, and for about an hour I work on the sudokus in yesterday’s paper while she reads the paper itself.  Four mornings a week, I walk to the gym for an hour, and on the way back, I pick up the newspaper.  What follows is breakfast and a shower.  Then, I can sit down at my PC, and check my email.

If I’m starting a new chapter, or a new section of a chapter, I’ll look at the outline I’ve written for that chapter to see what comes next.  Often, I experience a ‘writer’s block’ where I find it hard to get started.  I’ve learned that it’s best to not ‘just plunge in’.  Instead, I’ll think about the character or characters, and put myself in their shoes.  ‘What would he or she do next?’ I’ll wonder, and I’ll look for a response which is interesting, in character, and moves the story forward.  Once the starting point has been achieved, the story will tend to flow until the next juncture is reached.  Actually, I find that ‘writer’s block’ is a good thing: it helps prevent me from producing low quality output.  After I write about a page (single spaced), I’ll stop and read through what I’ve written.  At this point, I bring my critical skills into play, and I’m alert to any word or phrase which doesn’t feel quite right.  I may have to consult my thesaurus to find a better word.  Once I’ve reviewed the text, I’ll run the spell checker.  My spell checker is set for UK English.  (Even though I’m American by birth, I tend to feel that UK English is more authentic.)  Sometimes my editor doesn’t agree, which is OK, except when the novel is set in the UK and may, therefore, have primarily a UK readership.

Usually, I’ll take a lunch break from 1 til 2, during which time I’ll read the paper.  Then, I’ll be back at work – with the occasional break – until 6, which is generally my quiting time.

During the average day, I’ll produce four pages of text, which I’ll re-read again before signing off for the day.  And at the end of a chapter, the whole chapter gets re-read, and when I complete a novel, I’ll re-read it in its entirety.  (I should mention that during the editing process with my publisher, I’ll end up re-reading everything again at least once.  Every time I re-read, I’ll find something that I find needs changing/improving.)

The other activity that can take up to half my ‘writing time’  is doing research.  My fourth novel (which I’ve just finished) is set in Washing ton DC (where I have lived), Afghanistan and Iran.  I’ve never been to those two countries, and to make up for that deficiency, I’ve had to do a lot of research – mostly on line, but I find that Lonely Planet guides are a big help, too.

Then, sometimes I’ll think of a (usually slight) change of direction, which requires that I revisit one of more previous chapters to make alterations.


Time is an important dimension in the writing of fiction.  Usually, the story we’re reading took place in the past, and it’s generally written in the third person: “S/he said . . .”, “S/he thought . . .”, “S/he did . . . ”  But it can also be told in the first person: “I said . . .”, “I thought . . .”, “I did . . .”  It is possible, I suppose, to write a novel in the second person, past tense: “You said . . .”, “You thought . . .”, “You did . . .”  The trouble with writing is the second person is that it is quite limiting: it puts another person (whoever “You” is) between the author and the other characters.  Inevitably the reader will feel that “You” is acting as a filter of the events, and the reader will want to get rid of “You”, so that the author can report events, first-hand.

Novels can, of course be written in the present tense: “I say . . .”, “I think . . .”, “I do . . .”  This construction has the advantage of being completely personal and focused on the central character.  Also, the story seems to unfold in real time, so that cause and effect are more immediately clear.  (It is possible, I suppose, to introduce flash-backs in a novel that is written in the present tense, but the author has to be very careful not to  lose the reader.)  Novels written in  the third person, present tense are quite rare: “S/he says . . .”. “S/he thinks . . . “, “She does . . . ”  They are rare because the author assumes a God-like position, reporting on all his characters in real time.  This stretches the readers credibility, as would a novel written in the present tense, second person.

Novels written purely in the future tense (“S/he will say . . . “. “S/he will think . . .”, “S/he will do . . .” are pretty much impossible, because it raises the inevitable question from the reader: “How does the author know what this character will say or do?”  Novelists tend to get around this problem by what one might call a ‘flash-forward technique’.  This technique involves specifically telling the reader ‘what follows takes place in the future’.  For example in Fishing in Foreign Seas, the book begins with a Prologue, which is signed by the ‘author’ in June 2029, and it closes with an Epilogue signed by the ‘author’ in November 2029.  In between these chapters, the story unfolds between May 1992 and December 2004.  This construction allows the principal characters’ daughter, born in 1994 to write the story about her parents in 2029.  Who, but a daughter, would know all these secrets about her parents?

When one is writing a fast-moving story involving several influential characters who are in separate locations, one has to be careful about getting the sequence of events down perfectly.  This is particularly true where several characters have a mistaken view of what has happened.  For example, in my fourth novel, which involves the drugs trade in Afghanistan and Iran, a father and son are in Iran at the same time.  But in a rapidly-evolving series of events, neither of them knows what has happened to the other, and both are dependent on external (and inaccurate) sources of information.

Flash-backs are, I think, a very useful way of letting the reader gain an understanding of a particular character’s motivation without the specific intervention of the author.  In this regard, I am particularly fond of reporting a character’s dreams about a past event.  In Efraim’s Eye, Efraim’s dreams help explain both his motivation to be a terrorist and his attitude toward women.  And Naomi’s dreams cause her to seek shelter with Paul, which leads to their love affair.