Everything I Know About Writing I Learned from the Rolling Stones
Mick Jagger probably never realized this, but he and his bandmates knew a lot about how to write a good novel.
I Can’t Get No Satisfaction
A protagonist should want something—something important that they can’t get. This is the beating heart of every novel that has ever been written. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” Want creates desire. Want allows you to place obstacles in the way. Obstacles create tension. And voilà, you have a scene that makes your reader want to keep turning pages. Connecting your scenes causally will create momentum, and then you’ll have a plot on your hands.
If a novel is going wrong, quite often it’s because the author has not thought out the protagonist’s goal. It’s too vague, it’s not worthy of a novel, it’s too easily achieved, or there simply isn’t one that ties the whole story together.
A protagonist’s goal should be specific, tangible, and quantifiable. Not, John wants love, but John wants to marry Edith. That way, by the end of the novel, the reader will know whether John got what he wanted.
Your job as the author is to keep your protagonist from getting what they want until the end. They should continually be trying to achieve their goal, and failing, because they’re going about it the wrong way.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
It turns out that wanting something is only the first part of the equation. A truly effective protagonist should also need something. Ideally, they don’t realize this until the end when it turns out what they thought they wanted is not what they in fact need, or they can’t get what they want until they’ve first dealt with that inner need.
This might seem like splitting hairs, but again, check any well written novel and dig into its protagonist’s character development and you’ll see this is what the author has done. As an example, in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Eleanor fantasizes about striking up a romance with a musician she’s never met. What she needs, however, is to eradicate the ghosts of her past so that she can have a real romance with a man she knows from work.
Honky Tonk Woman
Since we’re talking about characters, you’ll want to create ones that come alive on the page. That means making them human and unique, someone the reader will both recognize and remember. Not just a woman—a honky-tonk woman.
New Zealand novelist Maurice Shadbolt speaks of adding a precious particle to your character. This might be a physical detail such as baldness, a handlebar moustache, a missing finger. Or it might be something in their backstory: an accountant who’s an excellent baseball player, a mother of three who overcame drug addiction. An elementary school teacher who goes to honky-tonk bars.
When you create a character that’s a stereotype or a caricature, you’re not only shortchanging the reader, you’re also not being honest about what it means to be human.
People are unusual and complex. Everybody is afraid of something. Everybody has flaws and secrets. In short, everybody is interesting if you give them a chance to reveal themselves.
Whatever you choose to add to your character to make them come alive on the page, make sure they also change over the course of the story.
Sympathy For the Devil
I can’t count the number of antagonists I’ve encountered in manuscripts that fall flat because they’re too simplistic. You can almost see them twiddling their moustache like Snidely Whiplash as they create their evil plots. Many of them are wholly unmotivated and are evil for the sake of being evil—and nothing else.
This is a missed opportunity. The more human you can make your villain, the scarier they become. And if you can create sympathy for them, you’ll also create a conundrum for the reader. You’ll make your reader uncomfortable, and that’s a good thing.
Evil for its own sake isn’t true to life. Even Hitler believed he was doing something worthwhile, regardless of how insane and misguided it was. When you think about it, every antagonist is the protagonist in their own story. The best villains think that what they’re doing is completely understandable and right. They would never think of themselves as villains.
Rather than evil, another way to think of an antagonist is as opposite. The villain is often a shadow form of the main character—this is the case in the Harry Potter books, Lord of the Rings, and A Wizard of Earthsea. That darker parallel, a hero gone wrong, is what gives us some of the most effective villains in fiction.
Paint It Black
We tend to grow attached to our characters and want to protect them, but this is the opposite of what we should be doing as authors. In our novels, everything should always be taking a turn for the worse. You might allow a moment or two of sunlight to relieve the pressure and make the reader think everything might turn out okay, but then… paint it black.
Reading about things that are going well is boring. There’s no tension in it. A reader is looking for tension on every page, in some form.
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?
One of the most effective ways to bring your reader into a scene is to add sensory detail. It makes us feel like we’re right there beside the character experiencing what they’re going through—and that is exactly where you want your reader. If someone’s at the door, let’s hear them knocking. If a scene takes place in a kitchen, give us the aroma of fried onions. If it takes place in a back alley, let us smell the dumpster or feel the rain on our face.
These kinds of details will create the fully immersive experience that all readers want from a novel.
All of this is to say, don’t be surprised if Mick Jagger comes out with a bestseller.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.