Showing posts with label Michael Moorcock. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Michael Moorcock. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 14

Preparing To Write A Story: Characters

Preparing To Write A Story: Characters

Today I continue writing about science fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock and his guidelines for writing a 45,000 to 60,000 word novel in three days.

Last time (see: How Michael Moorcock Wrote A Novel In Three Days) I wrote about how to begin setting things up, how to prepare for this literary marathon. Today I'm going to continue that discussion by talking about characters.

How many characters should you have?

I've heard it said that, "You should have as many characters as the story calls for." That's true but not terribly useful, especially for a beginning writer.  

While there is no clear-cut answer to this question, I would advise someone setting out to write their first book to let the adage "Less is more" be their guide. In other words, as long as each character has an arc that ties in with the main character's goal, that's fine. But if a character doesn't advance the story then one needs to think long and hard about whether that character should be in the story.[1] 

Also, in general, you likely don't want two or more characters filling the same role. For instance, if you're writing a 60,000 word novel and you have two vixen characters, ask yourself whether you really need them. What is each of them doing for the plot? Can you combine them?

Main Characters: Protagonist & Antagonist

You'll have a main character/hero/protagonist (of course!); this is the character the story is about. Their arc is the story arc. You'll also have an antagonist/villain, someone to oppose the hero's efforts to achieve his goal. That's the bare minimum.[2] 

Secondary Characters

Secondary characters are sometimes called minor characters. Whatever you call them, these are characters who have their own arcs, their own wants and fears, their own goals and dilemmas. In this way they're just like the protagonist and antagonist. The only difference is that the arcs of secondary characters are, well, secondary to those of the main characters. Being secondary doesn't mean being unimportant, it just means that their arc will, in some way shape or form, tie in with the protagonist's arc.[3]

Some secondary characters may have their own scenes, scenes in which they are the viewpoint characters. If you want to keep things simple--and the first time you write a book I'd say that's a great idea--have your protagonist be your only viewpoint character. But, like everything about writing, that's up to you and the demands of your story. Generally speaking, though, viewpoint characters will have more robust arcs than non-viewpoint characters.

K.M. Weiland advises that writers should add a relationship character to the mix since they will represent "the moral absolute within the story, against which the protagonist and antagonist will both be measured."

Best friend. In the movie Shrek the relationship character was Donkey. Clearly, Donkey was a force of change in Shrek's life, Donkey was Shrek's moral/ethical compass; Donkey never felt shy about telling Shrek how he should be doing things. 

Shrek provides us with just one example, but if you think about the stories you've read/watched/listened to I'm sure you will think of dozens of others since helper characters are in practically every story. 

Romantic interest. If the relationship character is the protagonist's love interest then it often happens that this character can see a potential in the protagonist that they themselves are blind to, perhaps that they (at times) actively resist. The love interest often tries to get the protagonist to change in ways that, though painful in the short term, would allow the protagonist to fulfill their potential. For example, in The Matrix Trinity helped Neo realize he was The One.

Minor antagonist. More colorfully referred to as an Evil Minion, Black Shirt, Punch Clock Villain, Renfield, or Sycophantic Servant this is the antagonist's special helper. Sometimes the antagonist is a Big Bad in which case the helper might be the protagonist's Nemesis.

Protagonist's mentor. There are all sorts of mentors. The wise old man/wizard/knight, the trickster, a teacher/guide/watcher, big brother, and so on. The mentor often gives the protagonist gifts as well as wise advice. If the hero--as often happens--initially rejects the Call to Adventure the mentor often convinces the hero to take up the challenge.

Chameleon. Often there is what I think of as a chameleon character, someone who seems as though they might be playing both sides, but one can't tell. Severus Snape, from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, was a chameleon character. He seemed to be working for the dark side but he turned out to be a red herring. The chameleon could be any of the characters--best friend, love interest, mentor or even the antagonist's minion.

Helper. What I just said about the chameleon being a role more than a character type/trope is also true for the protagonist's helper. This role could be filled with either the best friend, the love interest, the mentor or any of the many tropes which exist

So far we have:

Main character/Protagonist/Hero
Main character's conscience
- Best friend
- Love interest
- Mentor
Antagonist's minion

If you're trying to keep things as simple as possible, it's a good idea to try and keep the number of major characters--character's whose arcs are the most significant and who might be viewpoint characters--down to two or three.

We didn't talk very much about Michael Moorcock's method/formula for writing a novel in three days, but we do at least have a better idea of the kind of characters we'll be using. In the next episode in this series I'll talk more about the hero/protagonist and whether there are any qualities in particular the protagonist should have.

Good writing!


1. "Each [character] takes extra words, extra space, extra effort. Throw in too many, and you may even lose or confuse your reader." (Dwight V. Swain, Techniques of the Selling Writer)

2. The antagonist doesn't have to be a person; it can be, for example, a force of nature such as a tornado. But that is less common in genre stories and those are the kind I have in mind. Also, I think it is harder to use a non-sentient force (such as a tornado) as an antagonist and I write these blog posts with new writers in mind. Finishing a novel is difficult enough; let's make everything else as easy as we can the first time round!

3. The arcs of secondary characters don't always tie in with the arc of the protagonist. Some stories will have (for example) four characters whose stories are given equal weight and who don't interact, whose stories don't overlap. These stories-within-a-story are, from what I've seen, generally unified either by a person, a place or an idea. (Examples: Pulp Fiction and Short Cuts.) I didn't mention this within the body of my article because I'm focusing on writing a very simple story.

Links to interesting articles on characters and character creation:

Photo credit: "bike" by Greg Westfall under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Tuesday, May 6

How Michael Moorcock Wrote A Novel In Three Days

How Michael Moorcock Wrote A Novel In Three Days

Today I'd like to talk about science fiction and fantasy author Michael Moorcock and his guidelines for writing a 45,000 to 60,000 word novel in three days. 

This feels like a confession--and I suppose it is!--but I wasn't familiar with Moorcock's work until a couple of years ago. He's one of only a few genre writers who have also published successful literary novels. Also--and this is straight from Michael Moorcock's Wikipedia page--The Times named Moorcock in their list of The 50 greatest British writers since 1945.

I think I discovered Moorcock around the same time as Lester Dent. It seems that, when Moorcock first started out, he was a pulpiteer of sorts:

"Most of Moorcock's earlier work consisted of short stories and relatively brief novels: he has mentioned that 'I could write 15,000 words a day and gave myself three days a volume. That's how, for instance, the Hawkmoon books were written.'" (Michael Moorcock, Wikipedia)

Michael Moorcock's Formula

In "How to Write a Book in Three Days," Eric Rosenfield writes:

"In the early days of Michael Moorcock's 50-plus-years career, when he was living paycheck-to-paycheck, he wrote a whole slew of action-adventure sword-and-sorcery novels very, very quickly, including his most famous books about the tortured anti-hero Elric. In 1992, he published a collection of interviews conducted by Colin Greenland called Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle, in which he discusses his writing method. In the first chapter, "Six Days to Save the World", he says those early novels were written in about "three to ten days" each, and outlines exactly how one accomplishes such fast writing."

That's what I'd like to talk about today: How Michael Moorcock did it, how he wrote a book in only a few days. 

All the quotations in what follows (except where otherwise indicated) are from Michael Moorcock: Death is No Obstacle via Rosenfield's article. I would love to read Death Is No Obstacle, and to provide an expanded overview of Moorcock's writing techniques, but I refuse to pay the $150 it's selling for on Amazon! I hope that, one day, the book will become available as an ebook.

1. Be Prepared. 

MM: "If you're going to do a piece of work in three days, you have to have everything properly prepared."

Good advice. Great advice! But what, exactly, would this preparation consist of? 

Michael Moorcock talks about how to prepare to write a book quickly at various points later in the interview, and we'll look at that, but here I'd like to talk about some of the things Lester Dent did to prepare to write a story in a short amount of time. 

You might wonder why I've chosen Lester Dent. It's because Moorcock mentions Dent and his formula in both Death is No Obstacle and in his list of 10 rules for writers:

"7. For a good melodrama study the famous "Lester Dent master plot formula" which you can find online. It was written to show how to write a short story for the pulps, but can be adapted successfully for most stories of any length or genre." (Michael Moorcock's Rules For Writers, The Guardian)

Also, anytime a person sits down to write a massive amount in a short span of time, one needs to prepare and, even though a 45,000 word book is a lot longer than a 6,000 word story, still, many of the things we need to set up are the same--or at least similar.

Lester Dent on what must be in place to write a story quickly:

Lester Dent writes that you need to think about four things before sitting down to write a story:


I think that by "different" Dent meant a thing that was unusual, something mysterious; something that would catch a readers attention (I'll talk about this in more detail in point 5, perhaps I'll get to that on Friday).

You don't need to come up with something unique and mysterious for each of (1), (2) and (3), above. As Dent writes:

"One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest."[2]

In other words, come up with ideas for all three, but only one of them needs to be different and mysterious. 

By now we should have:

a. A murder method.
b. The villain's goal.
c. The setting.

One of a, b or c must be different; interesting, attention grabbing, mysterious. If all of them are, great! But we only need one.

d. A menace which hangs over the hero.

Here's how I think about the menace. Imagine a man in a rowboat being chased by a shark. The man is paddling toward land as fast as he can, but the shark is slowly gaining.

A hero/protagonist is driven by two forces: the situation he is trying to escape (the shark) and whatever it is he hopes to achieve; his goal (the land). Generally these two things are related (being chased by the shark explains the man's emphatic desire to reach land) and yet are distinct.

Using this analogy, the menace that hangs over the hero is his fear of the shark, anticipating being made into a nice light, very bloody, snack.  (In a sense, too, the shark, the menace, provides the ticking clock, but we'll look more at that later in this series.)


1. The Wet Asphalt articles on Michael Moorcock:

2. Lester Dent Pulp Paper Master Fiction Plot, by Lester Dent hosted over at

Photo credit: "News from the Pottery Market" by *Light Painting* under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.