Over to you Ollie!
WHO IS SHE?
Reviews of my first book, How to Lose Weight And Alienate People, were not too bad. Quite good-ish, actually. (Bar my favourite one on Amazon, that is. Three words. “DRIVEL. DRIVEL. DRIVEL.” Cheers!) A lot of authors say not to concern yourself with anyone else's opinion, but frankly, I think this is another lofty affectation (along with “waiting for the muse to strike”) that simply cannot be applied to writing as a job. In any profession you need to know what your customers want.
In the feedback for HTLWAAP, the main point of contention was my main character. Some readers found her endearingly irreverent. Others found her plain irritating. But thankfully, the majority of the latter seemed to enjoy her journey too. My latest novel, She Just Can't Help Herself, revolves around the stories of two women. I am sure both will divide readers again, but I want that. All fiction writers need their characters to feel like real people. Well, the real women who I like to read about in the press or in biographies, I am very rarely a fan of, more fascinated by... flaws and all. So that's how I try to depict my characters on the page.
Ultimately, there are no rules when creating a female lead. To approach writing a novel with an overly rigid approach to “her” personality will inhibit the way “she” reacts to the unfolding drama. Even if she is not a woman of extremes, she will still need to have nuances and traits that will appear in certain situations, which may even surprise you as the novel develops. That said, there are three elements which I always consider before I start writing, based on the way my favourite authors deal with the central protagonists in their own books.
Firstly – and probably the most important – is ensuring the reader can relate to the leading lady as a person, even if on introduction they have nothing in common with her life. David Nicholls (One Day, Us) is relentlessly good at this. The precise detail he employs to describe the tiniest of mannerisms or quirks has a hugely humanising effect. Add to this his ability to relay utterly convincing dialogue; which is never overplayed or trying to be clever. Which is clever in itself. So much so, each time I dip and out of his books, I always end up self flagellating over why I even bother to write/to breathe.
Secondly – and a progression of the above – is ensuring that the life of the central character becomes relatable quickly. In this area, Jilly Cooper will always reign supreme for me. I have read and re-read her books numerous times; especially her early series of Octavia, Imogen, Bella, Harriet and Emily which focus on a single female lead – I can't recommend them enough for a first time novelist. Then of course, there are the blockbusting behemoths that are Riders and Rivals, which are set respectively in the worlds of international show jumping and local TV. Not exactly the most populist areas, but the way her multiple central characters – especially the women – operate skillfully in these worlds, makes them readily familiar. Their knowledge of their surroundings and occupations is key to the reader's involvement.
Thirdly, your main character has to fluctuate and grow. John Niven's books (although, predominantly using a male point of view) are absolutely on point in this respect. The journey he maps out for his lead leaves you feeling as if you have gone somewhere too. Of course, growth does not necessarily imply a positive trajectory, there simply has to be progression. Niven's best-selling, Kill Your Friends, champions a character who starts out twisted and via sporadic moments of semi-self awareness ends the novel be-yond warped. As a reader you feel dirty, used and exhausted by the denouement... but in a fantastic way, because you are really feeling; surely the goal of picking up a book in the first place.
Managing to plot all of the above is hard, but once figured out will give the novel an easy flow and as a consequence so much easier to read. Although, unfortunately, it will never, ever, EVER make the next 423 PAGES easy to write. (Something that a certain someone who likes to leave a THREE WORD review might like to remember before he picks up his poisoned pen! Again.)
Ollie Quain is a London-based journalist who has worked for Ministry of Sound, the O2 and a number of fashion magazines. Her first novel, How to Lose Weight and Alienate People was published by Mira in 2014. Follow Ollie on Twitter @OllieQuain
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