In my first post, “How to Turn Your Story of Trauma into a Novel,” I discussed how both you and your readers can benefit from writing your story as fiction, and I gave tips for doing so related to the story itself. These tips included weaving fact with fiction, creating a classic story structure that will grab your readers’ attention right from the start, building tension and anticipation into the story to keep your readers hooked, evoking readers’ emotions, and several other tips to make your novel more captivating.
In this second post, I will focus on tips related to your story’s characters and the ending of the book. Both are crucial aspects of writing a compelling novel.
1. Your life story probably has a huge cast of characters, but to avoid confusion for the reader, don’t include everyone in your novel. Choose a limited number of characters to focus on. You can even make a composite character that combines several characters from your real life.
2. Change all names and identifying information for yourself and your real-life characters. Changes could include location, profession, number of siblings or children, appearance, and perhaps even gender (you might make such a drastic change if protecting yourself from an accusation of libel may be an issue). You can change all this detail without changing who they are as people or how you interacted with each other. You may also change the order of events.
3. Make your characters realistic and interesting. Even the most boring person is not one-dimensional (all good or all bad). Your hero (probably you) must be likable but not flawless. S/he needs to struggle so we see that character arc. The same is true for villains; they need to have some dimension to their personality. While the reader should despise them, we need to know the motivation for their behavior or maybe even see a soft spot. Tony Soprano from the television series The Sopranos is a good example of a villain with dimensions.
Make your characters real enough so readers feel as if they know them. This is best achieved through dialogue that is authentic to their character. However, do not write your dialogue exactly like real-life conversation because that tends to be repetitive and drawn out. Use dialogue to show relationships among the characters. What motivates them? What do they fear? What is most important to them?
4. Do not describe your characters as a separate narrative. Layer their description into the action as part of the story. For example, in my book, instead of saying the protagonist’s father had thick black hair and felt hot while cooking in the kitchen, I wrote, “Beads of sweat cover Luigi’s brow, dampen his thick crop of black hair, and moisten his shirt.”5. It is generally a bad idea to throw anyone under the bus—even fictitious characters—whether they deserve it or not. You don’t need to say someone was bad or make derogatory remarks about them. Give your readers credit for some intelligence. They can deduce a person’s character for themselves through action and dialogue. Trigger your reader’s imagination by leaving out some detail, because the more they use their imaginations, the more engaged they will be in your story.
6. Your ending is the resolution, so it should be emotionally powerful and directed to the reader’s heart, not their head. Focus on how you want your readers to feel when you end your story. You want to leave them moved.
7. Make sure to tie up all loose ends. Do not leave readers with unanswered questions or hanging story threads. Leave readers with an idea of what your story means in the larger sense. It must speak to them on a deeper level and should reflect your worldview. For example, if you have a worldview that embodies hope, your ending should leave the reader with hope.
8. You don’t have to write a happy ending or let your protagonist get everything s/he wants. Things don’t always get wrapped up neatly, particularly when your story is based on real life. Some things might be left unresolved, some lessons might still need to be learned, and some problems might still need work. That’s okay because it makes your story more believable. However, your story must show the protagonist with a character arc.
9. Don’t neglect to edit! Once you have finished your first complete draft, edit until the cows come home. Then it’s time to trust a professional to fine-tune and polish it for you.
From beginning to end, turning your experiences into a novel that honors your life is a daunting experience. But if we can step outside our history to tell a powerful story, we can set the world—and our souls—on fire with purpose, strength, recovery, and hope. Those are values everyone looks for in art and literature, and if we can sprinkle a bit of that magic in others’ lives, we’ll soon forget about the struggle it took to get us there.
Tell your story to the world—and tell it well—and you’ll do more than fulfill your dream of becoming a published author.
Everyone has a story to tell about their lives. What themes dominate your story? Hope? Resilience? Adventure? What is standing in the way of you telling that powerful story?
Dr. Sandra Duclos is a retired clinical psychologist who spent more than twenty-five years in private practice. She has published professional papers on her original research on the self-control of emotional experience and released her first novel, Waiting for Luigi, in October 2019. Sandra’s purpose and passion are to continue helping others to live their best lives through her writing, coaching, and teaching.