One of your goals as a writer is to bring your stories to life. One of the tell-tale signs of bad writing (a waving red flag, really) is characters that talk, act, or react unnaturally to the world around them. It doesn’t matter if that world is Manhattan, the ancient city of Babylon, or the main bridge of a Space Marine Thunderhawk orbital lander. If readers can’t identify with what a character is saying or feeling, it’s going to distance them from your writing. In some cases, that distance will include them setting down your manuscript, going out to lunch with friends, and completely forgetting it.

For the record—that’s bad.

As writers, the main source we have to draw on is our own lives. We can spend hours doing research in libraries or people-watching from the patio of our favorite Mexican restaurant (El Zarape on Park—it’s fantastic), but in the end it all comes down to things we’ve done and seen. We know how people act because we are people. We’ve all gone to school, hated our boss at work, and been cut off on the freeway. We’ve traveled a bit, kept secrets, and gotten our first kiss from that cute girl (or guy) we like. Well, most of us have, anyway.

However… this is where things tend to get a bit tricky.

People often confuse fiction-real with real-real. Y’see, the thing is, real life—the life you, I, and all the people we know are all living– is actually kind of boring when you get right down to it. I think the average person feels they’re living a pretty good life if they have one or two amazing days a month. And amazing usually just means having a great night at the club, a perfect evening out (or in) with a loved one, or just hanging with your friends while you watch a DVD with pizza and beer.

Very few ninja attacks.

Not that many pirates.

Almost no killer cyborgs from the future.

Not one nymphomaniac Famke-Janssen-look-alike billionaire heiress with amnesia who needs me to follow her to Europe to fend off the Knights Templar while she tries to locate the ancient mystical talisman that will restore her memory and bring about world peace.

(I really had my hopes up for that one…)

The other big problem is one you’ve probably heard of. Truth is stranger than fiction. No, really, it is. Even considering that last little fantasy. The world is a truly bizarre place filled with amazing coincidences and connections. They’re completely ridiculous. Did you know there’s a direct link between the development of the Japanese tea ceremony and the rise of the Freemasons? Honest, there is.

Take Vesna Vulovic. Vesna was a flight attendant on a DC-9 that was bombed in mid-air by terrorists in 1972. She was trapped inside the ruins of the plane’s hull as it plummeted more than six miles to the ground. However, through a near miraculous series of events and conditions, Vesna survived her fall. She fell 33,000 feet, was in the hospital for a mere two months afterwards, and is still alive today, walking, talking, and laughing.

So… does that mean a character should fall six miles and live in your writing? It really happened, so it must be believable, right?

Another great historical example is Grigori Rasputin, sometimes called the Mad Monk. Rasputin had a truly disturbing amount of influence over Alexandra, the wife of Tsar Nicholas II (why he had this influence… well, that’s a topic for the after-hours discussion) and in 1916 a group of Russian nobles decided he needed to be “removed.” But how do you quietly get rid of a man who would be huge by today’s standards (some reports claim he stood almost six and a half feet tall)? As it turned out, they poisoned him, beat him, stabbed him, shot him, beat him some more, smothered him, beat him a third time just to be safe, and then dumped his body in the Neva River.

Final cause of death, when the body washed ashore a few days later?


Another true story, and yet how often have you found yourself scoffing at the film character who ignores knives, bullets, and broken limbs? Or berated the screenwriters when someone survives a three story fall or a major car crash with only a few scrapes?

Here’s another one, a bit simpler and closer to home. I once worked with a guy named Carlos. He was an electrician and a best boy on several television shows and films that I worked on back when I was a prop master. One day at lunch I realized Carlos had the odd habit of putting “bro” at the end of almost every sentence when he spoke in English. At the time I was slogging my way through my first serious attempt at a novel, The Suffering Map, and ended up adopting his habit for one of my characters. When I got requests to send the manuscript to a few agents, I was thrilled. And every copy came back with the same note, worded in a variety of ways.

“The dialogue doesn’t sound real.”

At which point I smacked myself in the forehead, because I’d forgotten this same tip I’d given to dozens and dozens of people…..

Cloverfield is an excellent example of a movie that had flawlessly real reactions and dialogue—dialogue that made you want to smack every one of the main characters into unconciousness. Indie films have almost become a genre unto themselves, where “indie” refers to real stories about real people reacting in real ways to real situations… and boring the hell out of the audience.

Y’see, it doesn’t matter if something is real or not. What matters is that it works and draws in the audience. Books are not real life. Movies are not real life. No, not even if they’re biographies or documentaries. They’re a window, and the thing about windows is that they only offer a limited view, whether you’re looking inside or out. Simple common sense will tell you that you cannot make a window that lets you see everything. There will always be something just out of sight, around the corner, or just too big to see all at once.

A good writer knows just how big to make that window. They know just what they want you looking at. They won’t let you see distracting things. They’ll make sure it’s all fresh and sharp (or old and rotting, depending on what they’re trying to show you). They won’t waste an inch of glass displaying something that isn’t part of the view they want you to see.

Because if you try to make a window big enough to see everything… well, even if it wasn’t impossible, it’s not very structurally sound. Those are the windows that crack in the wind or just shatter under their own weight.

Remember, real life is never the answer.

This time, let’s talk about her. The hot chick.

Much as I’d like, this does not mean a whole post devoted to Famke Janssen, Hayden Panettiere, Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway, or Allison Mack. Alas, not even some of the hot chicks I’ve actually met and hung out with, like Eliza Dushku, Catherine Bell, or Reiko Aylesworth (who is one vicious pool shark). However, if any of these names conjure appealing images and thoughts, feel free to hang onto them for the upcoming extended analogy. Or pick someone you may remember from high school or college.

(Heterosexual female readers—my apologies. This analogy is also going to be a bit one sided, and may even seem a bit shallow at points…)

I think most of us at one point or another have known one of those incredibly sexy and alluring women and had hopes and dreams (or lurid fantasies) about ending up with her, yes? After all, how could she fail to see all my interesting qualities? My intelligence, sense of humor, self-assured nature, and casual disregard for fashion trends. I mean if Famke / Allison/ Eliza/ Reiko just got to know me, it would all work out.


Well, probably not. Let’s be honest, a woman like that tends to have her pick of mates, so odd are they’re going to lean towards someone… well, a bit more physically attractive. Not always, but that’s the way to hedge your bets. Likewise, they probably want someone with similar fashion and music tastes. Heaven forbid, there are even those females who are a bit shallow and are going to be looking for someone with money to spend on them.

Now… does this mean all and every lust-able woman is out of reach? Not at all. Everyone’s unique, we all have our funny quirks, and there’s a chance that Hayden has been secretly hoping to meet someone just like you. More hopefully, just like me.

If not, though, it might mean you need to make a few changes in your life. That is, if you’re serious about this connection with Anne. Exercise a lot more. Shower a lot more, too. Get a haircut. Stop buying clothes at Wal-Mart. Listen to something that isn’t ’80’s retro soundtracks. Possibly even get a job you hate that brings in more money.

Then you also have to deal with the fact that, well, lots of people are paying attention to a woman that hot. If you’re at a bar, a party, a club—you don’t think you’re going to be the only person who notices Eliza over there, do you? She’s going to be mobbed by people. Dozens, maybe more. Yes, half of them are way out of her league and don’t have a prayer of connecting with her, but they’re still there, in the way between you and her. And by the time you reach her, you’re going to have to try twice as hard to impress her (without looking like you’re trying hard) because she’s so tired of dealing with all these other folks.

And even after all this—after you get your act together, make changes to yourself and your life, and fight your way through the crowd– Angelina might decide to stay with Brad. Maybe not. You never know with these things. But there’s a decent chance she might.

So… ready for the analogy?

Writing professionally is like going after the hot chick. In this case, Famke is the agent or publisher you hope to win over, and you are your writing. Yes, there’s a good chance that there is an agent or publisher out there that will take your work just as it is with no changes whatsoever… but it’s probably not Famke. Or Catherine. Or Reiko. Or…

If you really want to land that dream agent or get that publisher to notice you, odds are you’re going to have to work at it. You need to be willing to make changes—maybe even ones you don’t like—to make your manuscript into something they want to read instead of just something you felt like writing. You need to stand out amidst hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other writers. Yes, half of them probably have no business being there, but the agent or publisher still has to work through all their stuff to get to yours, and will probably be feeling pretty tired and negative by the time they get there.

Despite everything you’ve seen in the movies, nobody ever gets the hot chick without some effort.