Fantasy Vs. Contemporary: How to Let Your Character Dictate the Story — No Matter the Genre

Fantasy vs contemporary novels

Back in 2009 (how could it have been that long ago!!!!) when I started writing Infinite Days, I was compelled by my main character, Lenah, and her voice. Infinite Days is a book about Lenah, a 592 year old vampire, who gets a second chance to be human. I was enthralled by this character who had seen so much darkness, reveled in it in fact,  and who had to relearn what it means to be human. She experiences love, compassion, envy, and more. When I first heard Lenah’s voice (I'm going to sound nuts) she came to my mind clearly. I could literally channel her and I understood how she would speak.

She's quite tortured, you see. That’s Lenah. That sentence you just read - that’s how she would talk. I would never say “quite tortured.” Anyway (I’ll move on before you call the looney bin), she had a clear conflict. At the time I had never read a single Twilight book and was unaware of the paranormal explosion in the YA fiction world. I wrote Infinite Days in eight months. From Lenah’s conflict came the story. Her emotional needs drove the conflict, not the other way around. I didn’t create the supernatural rules/lore for the world first, but with what the character needed. As a vampire, Lenah wanted to be human more than anything. So, to push her to want it even more, I took away any aspect that was remotely human from the vampire experience: the more she aged the less she would be able to experience the sense of touch, the only sense of taste was blood and flesh, and the ability to love waned over time. So much of our human experience is about being out in the world with other humans. As a vampire, Lenah couldn’t be out in the daylight. After a while, that kind of isolation drove her insane.

As I explain the process now, I think it probably seems like I was totally aware of all of this but I wasn’t. I’m a big believer in Robert Olen Butler’s “white hot of the subconscious.” Olen Butler says in his book From Where You Dream: “Art does not come from the mind. Art comes from the place where you dream. Art comes from your unconscious; it comes from the white-hot center of you. Does this make sense? Do you understand what I'm saying? If you want to think your way into your fiction, if you think you can analyze your way into a work of art, we're going to be totally at odds philosophically about what art is and where it comes from.”

I love that.

When I started writing a contemporary story, Between Us & The Moon,  I was already writing and drafting from a character-driven place, yet the rules had to change. In Lenah’s stories, anything was possible, which made my choices huge. But again, I narrowed the scope of those choices to anything that would push my character out of her comfort zone and inhibit her from getting what she wanted. So the choices got more specific.

Genre should never dictate the character’s emotions. As I hinted at above, a contemporary world in some ways narrows the scope of the character’s problems even further because of the sheer limitations as to what that character can and can’t do. A way to narrow that scope even further is to think about what your character needs. One of the best ways I can say to bridge the world of writing fantasy and contemporary is in the arc of the character.  

Try out the following 3 questions:

  1. Who is your character at the end of the story who he/she was not at the beginning?
  2. How did he/she get there? They have to earn that change. Without change you have no story.
  3. What does he/she want? Well, if he/she is a supernatural creature, does the world in which the live making it harder for them to get what he/she wants? If your answer here is something abstract like: she wants happiness! That’s not specific. That’s abstract. What is something specific that your character can do in the story that represents “wanting happiness?”

Playing God: Mastering the Omniscient Point of View in Fiction

It’s old-fashioned.

It’s much harder to pull off.

Lots of people will warn you against it.

But if you do it right, it can crack your writing open in the best way.

Omniscient point of view—that godlike narrator who knows it all—is out of fashion. These days, the most common POV in fiction is “third-person close.” That’s where the narration only sees what your main character sees, only knows what she knows, can only speak her feelings.

But an omniscient narrator knows much more than what’s happening in front of and inside the main character. The omniscient narrator knows what all the characters see and feel and know, as well as things none of them know, like what’s past and to come.

People will warn you that omniscient POV is less intimate. Third person allows the reader to slip into a single consciousness, to identify with just that one, and see the others as threats or objects of desire. You know: like you do in your own head every day. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that—many, many brilliant books and stories use third person close. It’s also much easier to control than omniscient POV.

But omniscient POV offers other readerly (and writerly) pleasures. Many of the greatest novels ever written move in and out of intimacy with more than one character, so much so that that movement becomes almost a moral, mind-opening act. What are the odds: other people too have feelings and desires and fears.

The catch is that omniscient POV is tricky to do, and easy to get wrong.

Omniscience vs. Head-Hopping

You’ve probably heard about the horrors of head-hopping. That’s when a writer carefully establishes third person close with one character, and then without warning randomly drifts into other people’s heads. This is extremely confusing to the reader—it breaks a sort of pact made in the opening pages. It’s also the kind of amateur mistake that will make agents and editors write you off.

Imagine that you’ve just started a book in which you’ve followed Karen for two or three pages throughout her busy day at the office and into an interview with a job applicant. Here we are on page four:

Karen stifled a yawn as she glanced again at the resume. It was all becoming so tedious, and she had paperwork to finish before lunch. She looked up at Steve, smiling a bright, false smile. Steve wondered if this meant he’d gotten the job.

Screeeeech. What? The reader is immediately disoriented—I thought we were sticking with Karen?

If you’re writing from the first person or third person close POV, the solution is simple: never, ever head-hop. But if you’re writing from an omniscient POV, you may move from one character’s thoughts to another’s. So how do you avoid the kind of head-hopping that’s the mark of a novice writer, one not yet ready for publication? These two rules of thumb are a start:

1)   If you’re using an omniscient POV, establish it in the first paragraph or two.

2)   Don’t try to give everyone’s thoughts and feelings. Especially in any single scene, stick with just one or two, three at most.

Learn from the Masters

Let’s look at an example of moving from head to head that works. I could have pulled from Dickens, Hemingway, or many others, but the real master of this form is George Eliot. Here’s the end of a brilliant scene from Middlemarch, in which idealistic Dorothea is giving her heart to the (rather tedious and awful) Mr. Casaubon, rather than to Sir James, whom she does not even notice is courting her:

Dorothea colored with pleasure, and looked up gratefully to [Mr. Casaubon]. Here was a man who could understand the higher inward life, and with whom there could be some spiritual communion; nay, who could illuminate principle with the widest knowledge, a man whose learning almost amounted to a proof of whatever he believed!
Dorothea’s inferences may seem large; but really life could never have gone on at any period but for this liberal allowance of conclusions, which has facilitated marriage under the difficulties of civilization. Has anyone ever pinched into its pilulous smallness the cobweb of pre-matrimonial acquaintanceship?
“Certainly,” said good Sir James. “Miss Brooke shall not be urged to tell reasons she would rather be silent upon. I am sure her reasons would do her honor.”
He was not in the least jealous of the interest with which Dorothea had looked up at Mr. Casaubon: it never occurred to him that a girl to whom he was meditating an offer of marriage could care for a dried bookworm towards fifty, except, indeed, in a religious sort of way, as for a clergyman of some distinction.

Let’s break down this classic omniscient POV:

  • Paragraph 1: Dorothea’s thoughts
  • Paragraph 2: Omniscient narrator comments drily on Dorothea’s thoughts
  • Paragraph 3:  Sir James’ words
  • Paragraph 4: Sir James’ thoughts

Advantages of Omniscient POV

The omniscient POV gives you the option of taking some distance on your characters—you can move in and out of their heads, deeply feeling their feelings, and then zooming out to comment on them.

Also, your all-knowing narrator knows things the character does not, and things the reader does not. This gives you, as a writer, tremendous flexibility in dropping hints about backstory or foreshadowing what’s to come.

Here’s an example in which the narrator comments, gives new information, and offers foreshadowing. It’s from my first book, Summer and Bird:

So Bird slept in the forest with the birds that night, only a weak, flickering fire between her and the black cold. Summer slept under the stars, wrapped in Ben’s red sweater. But each of them fell asleep turning over the same questions in her heart: Where is my mother? Where is my father? Where are they, where are they, where are they.
The answer is that they, too, were in Down, but far apart, and far away.
Their father sat in a boat that sat on dry land.
Their mother lay deep in the ground, but alive.
And their father’s heart and their mother’s heart each longed for their girls, just as the girls longed for them. A full house of longing hearts, though a house split open and scattered, far from where it began. But even scattered as they were, the strands of longing from those four hearts met in the sky and twined in harmony, making one sad, silent song.
But another heart, a discordant heart, had thrust among them. This heart had spoiled the family’s music for many years, though they did not know it. And this heart’s ravenous longing sounded not like any music, but like the scream of a cat, or a hawk when it kills. This was the Puppeteer’s heart, and the Puppeteer’s long claw was coming very near one small, cold, sleeping girl.

 Using omniscient POV here allowed me to do three things:

  1. Provide tantalizing bits of information to the reader that the characters themselves do not know (where the mother and father are; that the Puppeteer has been messing with this family for years)
  2. Show that the two sisters, though far apart and angry with each other, are emotionally in precisely the same place
  3. Foreshadow that the Puppeteer has her eye on one of the girls.

I could not have done any of that using any other POV.

All About That Voice

For me, as much as a first-person narrator, the omniscience narrator is all about the voice. Who is telling you this story? Why are they choosing certain elements to focus on? What attitude do they have to the characters and the story they are telling? Ironic and distant? Flat and emotionless? Merry and wry? Sad and philosophical? Bitter and snarky? Slightly insane? Trying to scare you, trying to make you cry?

How you answer those questions is how you weave a voice.

Some people talk about narrators that have an “objective perspective.” I say that’s nonsense—there’s no such thing. Your narrator will always have a perspective, a stance— that’s what POV means. Sometimes it may be a quite cold, distant perspective, but that is still a perspective.

Omniscient POV can definitely be a challenge, and it takes even more work in the writing and revising to get it right, compared to other POVs. But just because you’re not George Eliot or William Faulkner, you don’t need to fear it. Explore this technique in a short story, perhaps, and see what it has to offer you.

Katherine Catmull is a novelist, arts writer, playwright, and business and political writer and editor. Her first novel, Summer and Bird (Dutton Juvenile/Penguin), was named one of Booklist’s 2012 Top Ten First Novels for Youth and was both an IndieBound New Voices Pick and an Amazon Editors’ Pick. She is also a co-author of a collection of scary short stories, The Cabinet of Curiosities (Greenwillow/HarperCollins, 2014). Her next book with Dutton comes out in Winter 2016. Katherine has worked as an editor with a whole range of people, from novelists to college students to members of Congress. She spent twenty years in business and politics, working with politicians and CEOs to help them find just the right words to get their message across.

AREAS OF SPECIALTY: Literary fiction, historical fiction, memoir, YA and MG, urban fantasy, magic realism, comic novels, history and criticism, mysteries, narrative non-fiction.

AVAILABLE FOR: Manuscript critiques, developmental editing, content or line editing, writing coaching for adults, writing tutorials for kids, and first chapter critiques.


Layering Your Draft, Part Three: Frosting Your Characters

To start at the beginning of the series, click here!

Have you ever been told that your story has an interesting premise, a strong plot, and fine writing, but that the reader just didn’t “connect”? While there are many possible reasons for this, one of the most common has to do with character. The story in question needs more character-specific layers.

Character layers are the frosting of your story. People seem to think that frosting is what goes on top, but in a layer cake, the frosting runs in delicious seams throughout. It is always visible, always there, creating a beautiful depth and adding flavor to every bite. It is also BALANCED with the other story elements (ie the cake.) Character shouldn’t take over your story completely, and it shouldn’t be the only part they’re showing up for. Great frosting can’t make up for a dry cake!

This ratio looks so right to me.

This ratio looks so right to me.

Everyone has their own preferred frosting-to-cake ratio. Different genres can have different amounts of character development, and different ways to include said development. So what’s the best way to develop the balance in your work? Think about your own favorite stories, especially in the genre you’re working in. How do you connect to those characters? How do you want to use voice, banter, character desire lines, etc. to craft yours? Just remember: your cake needs frosting. Don’t skip it, and don’t skimp.

The first time I approached a draft with a layering technique, it went on to become my first published book. An early reader said that the story was working, and that the main character was coming across, but a secondary character was flat on the page. Here’s where I asked myself: what do I want from this character? Who is she in my head? Is she that person on the page?

Here are some practical tips for frosting your characters:

  • Isolate the scenes the character appears in. This works especially well for secondary characters. Create a document that includes only those scenes, so you can see the development and growth of that character, his/her subplots and how they are progressing without lots of other scenes getting in the way.
  • Break it down even farther. Are you focusing on the arc of a character’s desire line? Her dialogue? Her emotions or inner life? I’ve done passes for all of these things, and more. Sometimes a character needs a full overhaul, but often the more specific you can be about targeting what’s not there yet, the easier it becomes to add and tweak.
  • Look for the frosting gap. Often when I’m going back to do a character layer, I’ll find that I’ve left space to add. Certain moments just seem to open up when you look at the draft with an eye to deepening character!
  • What is strongest/most unique/most important about your character? Is that coming through in the draft?
  • Tie it into theme. In later drafts, you will want to make sure that your characters tie into the main themes of the story. Sometimes, characters who aren’t “working” are the ones who don’t have some connection to theme.
  • If you start with character, you might need to adjust or add more later. If you start with a character layer, just remember that as the story evolves, you might need to take another look at what you started with. Even if things change, that initial character work isn’t lost. In most cases, you’re not throwing out the frosting and making a new batch here. You’re just adjusting so it matches the cake perfectly.
  • Don’t be afraid to cut/combine. Sometimes a layer will be dedicated to taking out a character you really don’t need, or combining characters who are doing the same narrative job. If you isolate this in its own layer, it’s easier to adjust the rest of the story around it.
  • Let the main character take more than one layer. Don’t be nervous if you spend time on a character layer for your MC and people say she still needs some work. I usually devote 2-4 layers in each drafting process just for the MC. And, like I said above, I try to focus on specific drafting goals for each of these layers.

That’s all for this week—happy frosting!

~Amy Rose

PS In the last part of this series, I’ll talk about why layering works, and how to know when your novel is done baking!

Want to work with Amy Rose? She critiques, edits, and provides writing coaching for all sorts of fiction. Just click on the Contact tab and fill out the easy form to get started!

Who Hires a Book Editor?

“Who hires a book editor?” was my question when I joined Yellow Bird and another online editing company in 2014. I had spent 23 years writing and editing for large, traditional publishing companies before getting into the online, edit-for-anybody business.

Many authors in search of an editor are aspiring novelists, and the quality of their writing varies dramatically. Some are professional level. Others are great storytellers but their grammar is a disaster—or vice versa. I’m amazed by the number of fantasy and sci-fi submissions. Some of these books are in excess of 200,000 words, with the author often asserting that his or her initial book is the first of a trilogy. I edited one author who penned a 130,000-word fantasy novel and said it was the first book of a three-trilogy set! What’s 9 x 130,000?

I have edited both fiction and nonfiction over the last two years, and I’ve been blown away by the variety of the subject matter. These are some of the online nonfiction submissions I’ve edited:

  • Brennan, a special-ops soldier, wrote about his experiences in Iraq—about his desire to kill and how fellow soldiers exploded into pink mist before his eyes. Derek, a jaded platoon medic, told Brennan: “That’s why we’re dying. People want training and the military to be all soft and cuddly but then wonder why their overweight, television-addicted little pussy got his arms blown off because he wasn’t looking around properly because he has the attention span of a hummingbird.”
  • Jeff, a former Hollywood prostitute and Colt Studios model, wrote about the famous gay men he slept with, including Elton John!
  • Keena grew up in the African bush as the daughter of paleontologists. Her diaries discussed her life-and-death adventures with lions, hippos, and crazy baboons…and the scariest creatures of all: junior high girls when she returned to suburban Philadelphia.
  • Rex penned a biography of fellow Vietnam War veteran Ace Cozzalio, an eccentric, heroic helicopter pilot who always wore an 1800s cavalry uniform, complete with white hat and saber.
  • Tina was raised by a coldhearted mother who adopted (basically stole) Tina’s two children and prevented her from seeing them for 15 years.
  • Author Damon reminded me of a black Forest Gump. He was confined to juvenile detention simply because his father wanted him to be more disciplined; was unjustifiably bullied by cops on the streets of L.A.; lived through the Watts riot of 1965; and explored drugs in Vietnam, which caused him to attack his officer.
  • David, who created the live play-by-play technology that you see on and, described his court battles with Major League Baseball, which tried to use its legal muscle to invalidate his patents.
  • Tana was looking for a roommate after her divorce. She found a seemingly nice fellow who owned a house in Florida who agreed to rent her a room…then turned psycho and wouldn’t let her leave the house!

What’s your story?

Make More of Beginnings: Falling in Love

As writers, we’re so often told that the beginning of our story is make or break. It’s what we show our critique groups, our workshops, and agents when we query. It’s the first thing that readers see; it’s the first chance that they have to fall in love.

I want to look at this idea of falling in love with a story literally. Structurally. Because if it’s true that we fall in love with stories, that can tell us a lot about how to make our beginnings work.


The other night, I was watching the movie Music and Lyrics. As the two characters in this romcom got to know each other, they revealed little bits of their personalities and their pasts, leaving larger questions open. There were little mysteries, patterns, things that we knew would resurface. (Her current employment as a plant waterer had to have a backstory—right? He was definitely going to do the cute eighties dance move again—right?) These two wanted to know more about each other. They had to see each other again, to find out what happens next. Every time the characters talked to each other, they were building a relationship, and even within the neat timeline of a romcom, they couldn’t do it all at once. They were leading each other forward, step by step. That’s not just how we fall in love with each other. That’s how we fall into a fictional world.

At the beginning of a story, a writer can’t unload everything on the reader all at once. That results in dreaded info dumps. Instead of thinking of the beginning as the place where you have to makeeverythinghappenrightnow, try thinking of it as a first date. I think there are two elements of a successful first date that mirror the balance that we strive for in a story opening.

First—there’s what you put in to your beginning. That’s like the first date itself. The events (plot), the chemistry of the people involved (characters), the conversation, (voice), the physical attraction (maybe that’s about genre, or premise—I don’t know, but I could do this extended metaphor thing all day!)

How do we make the all-important decision of what to put in, though? This is where the individual story comes in, as well as writing style and taste. Often when we hear the “rules” of how you’re supposed to start a story, they feel flat, prescriptive. Imagine if you tried to follow the steps in a first date manual in order to find true love. The process has to be organic and personal—it’s about what you and your story bring to the table that no one else can. Focus on what makes your story unique. I’ve heard a hundred times never to start with a long description of setting in kidlit—and then there the opening of Tuck Everlasting. We’re often warned to get straight to the story, but there are so many great books that start with character-focused monologues. Anything can work—if it’s what makes your story special, what pulls the reader in and leaves them enchanted, delighted, a little bit in love.

And then there’s the second element of the date, which is a little more intangible. It’s what you’re leaving out. The more I read, the more I’m convinced that we are sucked into stories by little mysteries. This is the not the mystery genre I’m talking about—I mean any question that the narrative plants in our minds. The same is true with people. After the first date, we might like what we know—but we have to want to know more!

Recently, I read an interview with the YA author Laini Taylor, author of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. She admitted that when she started out writing about her main character, she knew that Karou had blue hair and hamsas on her hands, but she didn’t know why. She was writing to find out what happened next. The beginning was about what Taylor didn’t know—and now those same questions pull readers into her story in huge numbers. (And yes, get them to fall in love!)