Back in July, I did a presentation on “How to Write Non-human Characters” as part of our Character Building Workshop, and I thought it time I shared a little of it here for those of you unable to attend. I have written several novels, and numerous short stories (including fanfiction), about birds, lemurs, animal-people (“furries”) and fantastical creatures such as goblins and Pokemon. Whilst I do, on occasion, have human characters in my story, they are generally not the main protagonist.
So, why do I favour non-human characters?
First and foremost, I love animals, plus I have a zoology degree and I’m not afraid to use it, to educate while I entertain.
Other reasons you might choose to write non-human protagonists:
- Challenge, to explore the world from a different perspective.
- Adds an extra quirk to a fairly mundane or traditional plot idea.
- Allegory or parable.
Non-human characters can range from realistic style animals (Incredible Journey, Watership Down), through to the aforementioned furries. Generally speaking, I prefer to read animal-protagonist novels in which the animals behave much like their wild counterparts, but with increased insight and complex communication, or truly anthropomorphic ones, where the characters still show some of their natural animal traits. The movie, Zootopia, is an excellent example of this. However, shows like Arthur, where the characters are basically just children that happen to look like animals, don’t interest me.
Of course, “non-human” can also refer to werewolves, elves and many other near-human species.
For the purposes of this post, I’m going to deal predominantly with mostly-realistic animal characters.
The first thing to do when writing an animal character is RESEARCH. I watch documentaries, read books, look up information on the internet. Remember, if you get one facet wrong there is someone out there who will notice and most zoologists aren’t shy about correcting errors! Of course, the more popular your animal is, the more is known about them, so not only will you have a plethora of information at your hands, there will also be more folks out there looking to correct any errors you might make. If you are making up the species, as I did with my goblins, then you can create as crazy an ecology as you like, but remember to keep it consistent!
Next you need a plot, and with that, CONFLICT. Is your character wild or domestic? If domestic, you could write a family drama from the animal’s perspective – The Last Family in England (aka The Labrador Pact) by Matt Haig is an excellent example of this. Murder mysteries seem popular too: why have several cats in the neighbourhood been found dead? Sit down and brainstorm a list of possible adventures that your domestic cat or dog could get up to. For both domestic and wild animals, there is the classic theme: trying to get home/find a new home, in which either the original habitat is destroyed (Animals of Farthing Wood) or the animal is taken from his/her home and must find her way back (Far From Home Cats). Survival in general is also a popular theme, (ie: Black Beauty and Bambi), but you will still need the plot to build to something – whether it be the battle for dominance to claim his position as head of the herd, or that final hurdle before being reunited with her owner or finding his forever home.
Even animal characters need PERSONALITY. They should always be a character first, animal second. They should have needs and wants, hopes and dreams – and forces (be it another character, or nature) acting against their achievement of these. Cliches are fairly common in animal-driven narratives: cats are sly and manipulative, dogs dependable and loyal, but it is fun to twist the stereotypes. After all, hyenas are generally portrayed as scheming and malicious thieves and rogues, but did you know that they do regularly hunt their own food (not just steal it), have a matriarchal society and form strong clan bonds, not entirely dissimilar to the oft-romantisied wolf?
Whether your animal character is predator or prey, pet or stray, it can be fun to delve into the world, look at it from a different perspective (don’t forget the senses!) and challenge yourself to write something different!
Angela Oliver is a writer and illustrator, a reader and a dreamer. She has independently published two novels via Amazon’s CreateSpace, Aroha’s Grand Adventure, about a weka (a flightless NZ bird) and her adventures as she makes her way home across the island, and Fellowship of the Ringtails, which she describes as “epic fantasy with lemurs”.
Then the next workshop in the 2016 series of Christchurch Writers’ Guild workshops is just what you need.
The Writer’s Toolbox
Sunday September 25, 2016, 10:30am – 12:30pm
South Library, 66 Colombo St, Cashmere
(Parking is across street by river outlet)
$10 (CWG members), $15 (non-members)
Places limited to 25 people.
- Nuts and Bolts
Brush up on your basic punctuation and grammar. Get a refresher on colons and semi-colons. Learn the differences between the dashes. Remember the differences between different sentence structures.
Presented by Joan Gladwyn (Editor with Proper Words)
- Work Gloves a Must: Roll Up Your Sleeves and Get Active
Remind yourself about the differences between active and passive voice. Get it straight in your head the differences between show and tell, and when it would appropriate to use each.
Presented by Shelley Chappell (Author of BEYOND THE BRIAR)
Whether you are a new writer, just starting out, or an established author, it can always help to have a reminder of those common tools of our trade.
Preregistration is now open. Please note that preregistration does not guarantee a place within workshop. The places will be strictly limited to 25 people. Door sales only.
Members must have membership code with them to receive discount.
Not a member of the Christchurch Writer’s Guild? Not a problem. There’s no time like the present. Join here.
This workshop is proudly sponsored by:
As a writer, if you ever want to publish – be it indie or traditional – you are going to need feedback on whether your novel works or doesn’t work. Critiques can be hard to take, and here’s some tips from our President, Judy Mohr, on how to find the value in even the harshest analysis.
Every writer who puts their work out there will have to face critiques of all flavors: the good, the bad, and the outright mean. For the new writer, one just starting down the journey, sending that baby out for review can actually be a terrifying experience. “What if they don’t like it? What if I’m doing it all wrong? What if they tell me my writing is shit?”
Well… Not everyone is going to like what you write. Writing is like art — filled with subjective opinions. If you’re determined to have everyone in the world like your writing, then you might as well give up now. It’s never going to happen. The best you can ever hope for is that the fans of books you like to read, the stories that influenced your writing, also like your book.
In terms of doing it wrong… I’m sorry, but this is your…
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You’ve finished your book. It’s been edited thoroughly and all the typos and grammatical errors have, to the best of your knowledge, been removed. Well done!
You’ve eyed up the pros and cons of the self-publishing and traditional routes, and have decided — for whatever reasons— to go it alone, and do it yourself.
So, how to make your book look professional?
This step will vary depending on which site you’ve chosen to publish through. Some offer templates, which merely require a cut-and-paste, then a quick tidy through. If you’ve chosen an unusual trim size, or just want to maintain complete control, then here are a few steps you can follow to make your book look as professional as possible:
– First, adjust the page sizes of your manuscript to match those of the Trim Size you have chosen. Most writing programs should allow you to “custom” your page sizes. It will then reformat your entire work.
– Now, you must add in the front pages. For some ideas here, pick up the nearest book in your house and look at the way the front pages are set out:
(Odd numbered pages are on the right hand side, evens on the left. Therefore, even numbered pages are on the back of the odd numbered pages)
Page 2*: Often blank, or you can list other books you have written here.
Page 3: Title page – shows title of book, author’s name etc
Page 4: Copyright details, ISBN, perhaps a dedication (unless you want that on the next page)
Page 5: Dedication or quote
Page 6: Blank, Map or other Illustration
Page 7: The story begins.
* My earlier self-published books skip these two pages, and start with the title page (meaning the story starts on page 5). There are a few traditionally published books that do this too, but not many.
> The story should always start on a right-hand page, even if this means leaving a page blank.
> Page numbers should not be on the pages before the story begins.
> Justify your text. Unjustified text in a printed book pretty much screams of amateur publishing (however, poetry and books written for dyslexics are the exception to this rule). After justifying it, you may like to look through for any sentences that have been stretched too long and manually add in hyphens/divided words. Do this after the ebook conversion, or you’ll find random hyphenated words in your ebook. Either that, or you can also adjust the kerning (the spaces between letters).
> Be consistent. Make sure your line-spacing remains consistent for the entire novel, that you don’t accidentally change font size or style, or the size of your margins.
Other Things to Consider:
Margins: I generally set the same margin left and right, with a larger gap top and bottom. You may choose to have a narrower margin along the gutter of the page. My margins are quite wide, which worked well when CreateSpace did one of my print runs at a smaller trim size (the books were still readable), but you may choose to make them narrower. Study printed novels of the appropriate size to determine your own, preferred, measurements.
Headers: I don’t really like Headers, and a random opening of my shelved books shows that not every traditionally published book has them anyway. If you do have Headers, remember to remove them from the pages which say “Chapter One” in them, or whatever. Otherwise they look poorly formatted and ugly.
Footers: Page Numbers are ESSENTIAL. The library needs to put a tag in your book on page 33, after all. You can center your page numbers or set all the left hand pages to the left hand side, and all the right hand to the right side.
Font: I prefer serif fonts for my manuscripts and all of my novels use Century Schoolbook. You can use Times New Roman, but it’s so common, it’s kinda blah. Century Schoolbook adds a bit of class (in my opinion!). Make sure the font you use is easy to read, also be aware that some fonts are not royalty free, meaning you can’t use them in something you’re making money from. If you set your font too large, it will look like a book for young kids or the elderly. If you set it too small, it is difficult to read. I use font size 10-12, Century Schoolbook for my novels. Note that font size (and line spacing) will affect your number of pages, and if you want a really thick book, you need a bigger font! (Which is why I think some traditionally published authors use such big text, either that or it is for their older readers!). Sans serif fonts (like Arial) are good for children’s books, however, as they are easier for dyslexics or those with reading difficulties.
Paragraphs: Note that after a line break, the first sentence of a paragraph is not indented, but all the rest are.
Line Spacing: I publish my middle grade books with spacing set to 1.5, because these make it easier to track the lines. In my adult books, I set it to 0.54, which allows some space between lines without looking too “childish”.
Chapter Headings: Make sure your fonts, size and style are consistent. Don’t write “Chapter One” then have “Chapter 2”, for example. Also note that changing the size of the font here may affect the way the text lines up at the bottom of the page, and it is preferable to have these consistent. For this purpose also, you should Kill all Widow and Orphan Control*. Adjust the font size of the Chapter headings until you can see that they line up in the PDF version. An easy way to do this is to make sure that the line spacing is proportional – ie: I usually set my line spacing to 0.54, which leaves a bit of a gap between lines, and for the headers I set it to 1.08 (2 x 0.54). This seems to work.
Adding Illustrations to Text: There are two sorts of ways you can include illustrations in the story – one is as a full page spread, the other is as little line drawings interspersed with the text. There’s no real rule to doing this, just make sure it looks right. Personally, from here-in I intend to draw my images at a size that is proportional to the page size so it will fit without having one or two sentences around it. Aroha and Midsummer Knight both have them mingled with the text, but for my Lemur Saga books, I’ve got them on full single pages at the end of the relevant chapters. Use lineart, or grey-scale your colour images first, to make sure they look right; you can make adjustments to brightness etc to make it clearer. If intermingling it with the text, use the “padding” option to provide a few millimetres of space around the image so that the text doesn’t run into it. Trying to get them to sit right on the page can be endlessly frustrating and I have no advice but perseverance. If you are also writing for ebook format, illustrations will mean the text on the page preceding may run for half a page or less, as they often (but not always) show up on an individual page. I have removed the illustrations from most of my ebooks, as it gives more incentive to buy the physical book.
* Widows and Orphans – when the page re-formats itself so that if you have two lines in a paragraph at the base of the page that would be left hanging, they get shifted up to the next page leaving a gap of two lines. They are the bane of my OpenOffice existence, since I want my text to line up at the base of the page, and I don’t care if there are only four words on the next page. I keep turning this off on OpenOffice, and it keeps coming back to haunt me.
Once you think you’re done – export your novel as a PDF file and look through it, to make sure everything looks as it should.
Many of my followers on Twitter will know that I have recently completed my manuscript and am now on the path of querying for agents and publishers. It’s a hard road, one that many turn away from.
Writing the manuscript was hard. Editing it into something worth reading was harder. Writing a query letter was harder still. And the synopsis was a nightmare. Let’s face it: compressing a full-length novel into one page is a frightening task. Not all agents want a synopsis, but most publishers do. So if you are fortunate enough to snag an agent without needing to write a synopsis, you will eventually need to write one.
During my preparation of my submission materials of my own manuscript, I struggled to bring my synopsis to under one page, like so many other writers, but I did it. Everything is now ready to go, it’s just a matter of working out…
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