Keep it gritty

I'm back in London! Hooray. I love Oxford, especially during the winter, but by the last week of term I'm always ready to go home. My Emily Dickinson coursework, fortunately, went well. The quote I had to respond to was 'Candor – my Preceptor – is the only wile', from one of Dickinson's letters. Turns out the word candor can mean 'whiteness' or 'brilliance', so it fit perfectly with my research on nineteenth century photography. I believe I can now call myself a Dickinsonian scholar. So, er, nerd points for me.    

Not much book news this week. I'm thrilled to be going to New York in February to meet the Bloomsbury USA team. I've been to NYC before for a day, which wasn't nearly enough time to explore the city, so I look forward to going back. In other news, I'm still waiting for Bloomsbury to confirm an exact date for the cover release. They're finalising their schedule, so I should know soon. Fingers crossed for this month!

  • Do you think genre gets in the way of good storytelling, or when embraced, actually enhance it? (virtuefiction)

    This question is in response to my last entry on genre. Generally, yes, I think genre gets in the way of storytelling. It requires people to think inside a box, and I'm not keen on that. However, genre can enhance a story if the author plays with its limits and deliberately subverts the reader's expectations. So long as you think of ways to make your novel stand out from others of the same genre, it can and does work. This is why I like 'hybrid' books: you're destabilising one genre by introducing another.
  • What pen name will you write under? (Mohsin)

    If you've read more than one article about The Bone Season, you might be scratching your head over my name. My birth name is just Samantha Shannon. My legal name, however, is Samantha Shannon-Jones. I had 'Jones' added after my mum got remarried. However, I felt Samantha Shannon-Jones was too much of a long name to write under, and I liked the alliteration of my birth name, so when I write I'm just Samantha Shannon again.
  • Will the title of the series just be The Bone Season? (Mohsin)

    Yes. It may differ between territories, but the series title is THE BONE SEASON. This means the title of the first book may be different in some languages to ensure the series title and the book title aren't the same. I've been discussing a possible new title for the first book with my German editor. In Germany there is usually an English series title followed by a German book title, so it will be The Bone Season: [German book title].  


Character development

This topic is prompted by Neil on Twitter, who asked how to make fictional characters believable. There are many ways in which to make a character a complex 'person'; it's a fine art, one that can go wrong very easily, but one that all authors want to get right – with good reason. I've tried my utmost to make every character in The Bone Season believable while holding back a great deal about them, with the view to developing them over an entire series.

Here's some food for thought. The way I approach character building is to not think too much about appearance, and to focus on the internal. I've read far too many books, YA romance especially, in which the appearance of the love interest – or the protagonist, or both – is described far too regularly. Keep appearances short and sweet. If we're told that the love interest has beautiful eyes, tousled hair or pale skin, we don't need to hear it again on every other page. If we're told at the beginning that the narrator has brown hair, don't keep describing how she "combed her brown hair". We know it's brown. A few introductory sentences will suffice; after that, leave it to the reader's memory. The same applies to what your character wears. Unless their attire is important to the scene, or has meaning (e.g. a uniform, ceremonial dress, disguise), we don't really need to hear about it. Always think, when you describe something, why you are describing it. Only describe things in detail if they are relevant. Relevance is your friend.

Try not to make your characters abnormally beautiful or ugly. The title of this blog is keep it gritty, and that's what I like to see in fiction. Think about what people look like in real life. They sweat, they bleed, they look like crap in the morning. In the cold light of day, few people literally make heads turn; fewer look like supermodels. Even supermodels don't look like supermodels without the right lighting and makeup. If your character is so beautiful that all the other characters fall in love with him or her, you'll find yourself sliding down the slippery slope towards a Mary Sue or Gary Stu. Don't give your character purple eyes or silver hair if that's not normal within the world of your book. While you want to avoid writing a Mary Sue, be just as careful with the Anti-Sue. Don't conspicuously shout at the reader that your character is so ugly and bad (s)he makes the entire world cringe. That's just as unbelievable. And don't introduce an absolute dichotomy of pretty-for-good and ugly-for-bad.

The interior is the realm of fiction. Past appearances, real people are complex and deeply flawed. They get angry and resentful. Most are inherently selfish, or at least desire self-preservation. Sometimes they're tempted by power or money or glory, even if it's at someone else's expense, and even if they are generally selfless. Ask yourself why your character is the person they are. What made them that way? 'Evil' characters should have just as much motivation for their actions as 'good' characters. No-one should just be 'evil' or 'good'. Yes, they can be sadistic and cruel, but don't make them one-dimensional. Give them some damn good reasons for their actions. This shouldn't change for non-human characters. There will probably be differences – hell, there should be differences, if this character is truly non-human – but they should still have an agenda behind what they do. When writing non-humans, question what makes a character 'human' and try to subvert it without making them one-dimensional. Be ruthless. Interrogate your characters and your story. Force it to account for itself.    

On a similar note, try to avoid self-inserts. This is when you put a character into the story, usually the main character, that closely resembles you. The presence of a self-insert means you'll be investing in the character to an unusual degree and shying away from treating them as a fictional entity. You might, for example, be less willing to kill or injure them, or to admit their flaws. 

If you're looking at this blog post and trembling with nerves, terrified by the prospect of writing such a character, don't panic. There is a massive article about how to avoid Mary Sues, but it makes my head spin just looking at it. It's unlikely that you've written one of these characters – it's far more common in fanfiction. The Universal Mary Sue Litmus Test is helpful in determining those traits that some consider unbelievable, but don't get yourself too stressed over it. Picture yourself meeting your character in real life. How would you react to them? Do they fit into the real world, or are they too perfect for it?

The beauty of the realistic character is that you shouldn't have to think too much about how to make them believable. Trying too hard will make the character seem forced and self-conscious. Just write what feels natural and check it over later. And remember, if you're planning to write a series, leave room for further development.  

How do you approach character building? Are there any characters in fiction you particularly love or hate?


  1. Great post, love your character tips. And especially love that you are going to New York! So exciting, have a brilliant time!

  2. I love this post, thank you! Your character tips are really good.

    When I build a character I always ask myself, why she/he is the way she/he is. The appearance can be described very short and that's enough, but the personality needs more time. I build my character peace by peace. I also want to give my readers space to picture the characters themselves.

    There are many characters I love: Harry Potter and many others in the Potter series, Katniss Everdeen, Harry Bocsh (my favorite fiction detective), Kay Scarpetta, Daniel Sempere and Fermín from The shadow of the wind...

    So exciting that you're going to New York! Have a good time!

  3. Great blog today, agree with everything you say. But something of note, is that I think a character doesn't necessarily have to develop to be a good character. Plenty of good characters have been static ones.

    One of the things that I've found to work in creating characters is a straight interview format. Some of the ones that I've found are 250 questions, maybe a bit more than really necessary, but better to be through than too light, right? Of course, you never would use all the information from the questions in the book, but I think it helps the writer to know as much as possible about your characters. I think it helps you to get into the character's voice, too!

    Lastly, is the title of the first book going to just be "The Bone Season" and then the rest of them will be formatted "The Bone Season: Book 2?"

    1. That's a good point about static characters. I do think they're more likely to appear in standalone novels and short stories, as a character will inevitably change over the course of several books (or one large book). How much you develop your characters, if at all, should be a personal preference. Apart from world-building, developing characters is the thing I most enjoy about writing.

      Interviews are always a good way to interrogate your character. Do you have one you particularly like to use?

  4. Thank you, Samantha!

    I was long under the impression that anything but an urban fantasy would be accepted by a publisher (read: agent). I've pitched my novel to a publisher in front of an audience of 80 people before at a writer's conference, only to be told that "genre fiction isn't their thing"... But it only took a few people in the audience to say they'd be interested in reading it if it ever got published that put me back in the saddle.

    Gaslamp is a niche genre, and stringing together the words "rural-gaslamp novel that borders on urban fantasy" just sounds ridiculous. I'll keep pushing ahead with the WiP regardless.

    I think a lot of writers jump the gun a bit. Learning our craft and writing the best story we can is more important than boxing a novel into a pre-determined genre.

    1. That was incredibly brave of you to pitch in front of 80 people. Surprised the publisher was so close-minded without seeing the MS. I honestly think it's easier to just describe the story rather than, as you say, trying to string together a sentence about what genre it is.

    2. Yep. Classic case of false advertising:

      "You have exactly three minutes to impress (publisher's name) with your idea."

      I remember labelling it as "gaslamp fantasy" and seeing several audience members nodding their heads in recognition of the term. Anyway, it was good for my self-confidence! :)

  5. Thanks for answering my questions.Have Bloomsbury decided the illustrations in inner pages (beginning of every chapter) yet?

    Can't wait to see the cover!

    Wish you a great time in NY and Kansas next year.

    1. Not yet – the book hasn't quite got to that stage of production. And thanks!

  6. Hi its me again, Neil. I see what you mean when you said that you find it easier to connect with your main protagonist by writing in first person. See I just started writing the first chapter of my soon-to-be first novel (fingers crossed), actually it was more of, for lost a better word, a "trial chapter" to see if it will work. At first I tried to write it in third person just as JK Rowling did with Harry Potter, you know being a HUGE obsessed fan of hers, I admire her writing so much being so clear and very easy to understand for me as a little boy back then, her vivid descriptions, how she narrated the story, just draws you automatically into her world, so it is only natural for me to try to, not really copy, but to try to follow her suit. But I struggled, I can't seem to find the right words to say what I wanted to say, to show what I wanted to show. i got really frustrated to the point that I feel like I don't have what it takes to become an author, that I will be never be able to finish my novel, let alone the first chapter. But then I don't want to give up so easily, I have so many ideas for my book that is hard to just throw away and ignore. So I tried to follow your advice or something that I read in your very first blog post, I tried to write in first person and BOOM! words were coming to me, pouring actually, it felt like I was listening to someone dictating the words to my ears and all I have to do is type it. LOL really magical. I seriously love your blog, learned so much. Please keep em coming. Can't wait to see the cover of TBS this month, and to read it in August. Goodluck.

  7. Another great post! :) I really can't wait to watch your characters evolve through The Bone Season. It sounds like you've done an amazing job with them.

    1. I really hope so! I'm looking forward to taking them all through the series. I love developing characters – one of the most enjoyable aspects of writing.


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