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DO NOT LOVE YOUR CHARACTERS (More or Less Than Your Readers)

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Dear Internet, I apologize for being absent. I was out of town and then I was writing the sequel to Raven Boys and then I was buying a race car. I know. Excuses, excuses.

A few days ago, I posted some coffee-fueled writing tips on Facebook and Twitter. As follows:

1. Thou shalt not love your characters more than your readers do.
2. Do not forget the weather.
3. (specially for YA writers!) Only 20% of US families are single-child families. HELLO SIBLINGS.
4. Read it out loud. In Emma Thompson's voice, if you can.
5. If you're bored while writing, the reader is bored while reading. Delete & regroup over coffee.

I got asked a few times to clarify #1, so that is what I intend to do. When I said it, I was not referring to the treasured writing wisdom “kill your darlings.” Faulkner was the first to advise writer to kill their darlings, which basically boils down to: if you love a bit of your writing too much to be reasonable and logical about it, you should cut it. That you should never sacrifice the good of the whole because of blind affection for a single bit. (I do not agree with this advice, by the way. I think if you love a part of your writing beyond reason, you should delete the rest of it and write the rest to match the loved bit).

What I meant when I said “thou shalt not love your characters more than your readers do” was that you can love your characters, but you must show your work.

I can’t tell you how many times a writer has confessed to me how much he/she adores her characters, how their voices inhabit his/her life, how he/she wishes they were real so he/she could spend time with them*. Then I read the manuscript and the characters are flat as a board. It’s possible — nay, probable — that these characters are vivid, living, lovable characters in the writer’s head, inhabiting a fully-realized world full of authentic moments. But none of that character-building has made it onto the page. The writer hasn’t managed to write the characters well enough to allow the readers to share that experience.

*sometimes writers tell me they have crushes on their character and would date them and then I get squicked out and run away. So feel that way if you must, just don’t tell me about it. Because I will run away.

As a writer, you have to earn every little bit of affection. Our goal as writers, maybe over and above anything else, is to convey the story in our head in such a way that readers experience it exactly the way we imagine it.

Loving characters that readers don’t care about is just . . . unseemly. When you’re in love with them, you have to make sure that your fondness for them isn’t ruining your objective portrayal of them. Perhaps Faulkner was right after all. If you love a character too much to be able to tell if you’re getting across their coolness, maybe you are better off just cutting them.

Oh, you know I don’t really believe that. I always think the answer is improving your writing to match your passion, not stripping passion from your work. I think it holds true for characters too. Listen to what your critique partners say about your them. You know your characters through your emotions and imagination. Your critiquers know them only through your words. Your job is to make those two portrayals the same.

  • Wonderful advice.

    Even better advice, hidden in plain sight – have critique partners! I know so many writers who work in a vacuum and then wonder why they don’t have any success.


    • Dear Maggie,
      I don’t know how you do it,writing that is.How are you such a good author i am as some adults may say, a child well i want to be like you when I get older.An amazing author.When people read your books they get attached they can’t quit they are hooked.I read your books Shier,Linger,and Forever.Are you going to make another book, there where rumors that there was fourth book Litter.You should make a new book the others were amazing.I loved them.I know you might ignore this and say it is stupid and never know its going to you please read this,I know I am no one special but you said yourself think of your book as much as the reader.This is going to sound stupid but I know over 2 million people who say i want Maggie to make a new book.All of my friends,And some of my enemy’s,my cousins even the boys at my school surprisingly come up and say it.My librarians my principal my mom my sister everyone i know.So please think of us readers Maggie.
      Thank you your reader

  • Hi Maggie,

    Thanks for clarifying! I was feeling a little like ugh, but how do I know? when I first read #1. It would be hard to decide how much readers love or don’t love our characters. But I think I understand now what you mean about it all being on the page. I find that taking a break from my manuscript and coming back to it lets me see with fresh eyes if who is in my head is actually on the page. Thanks again! And I’m so excited for September 18th!

  • Caitlin

    This is awesome advice!! Thanks so much. 🙂

    It’s also why my brothers have been stuck reading my output of late — I’ve finally started getting things I feel could go somewhere, and I want the opinion of Very Different People so I can figure out how to improve characters and plot lines.

  • Sarah Land

    Great advise from a writer who writes characters so vibrant and real that I wish they were–except for the faeiries. I’m glad they’re not real. They kind of freak me out, but that is because they are written so well.

    I will try to keep that in mind as I continue to write my second book.

  • Number 1 & 3 go together for me. I have a deep obsession with writing about siblings and I’m always try to make my reader fall in love with that relationship, too. Great post!

  • Thanks for the great advice! It was really interesting!

  • Gwyneth

    this doesn’t really relate to your post but…VICTORY, I GOT MY BOYFRIEND TO READ SHIVER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! MWAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Kaida

      lol, isn’t bg on Linger now? At least that’s what he yelled at me after I didn’t say hi to him when I walked past his locker…

      • Gwyneth

        Yeah, now he’s on Forever

  • I must say, I’m terribly glad to hear that it’s ‘normal’ for a writer to love their character in a way they’d actually consider dating them… yeah… guilty. Anyway, great entry. Very helpful 🙂 I came to realize that I need writer friends – hehe.

  • M.

    This is one I struggle with. I spent 4 years writing my one and only novel which is being edited right now, and I feel like the characters are family. I see them and know them as clearly and intimately as anyone real in my life. Weird. I know. But I totally understand what you mean, Maggie. I worry constantly about how I’ve written the characters. Do their personalities, flaws and all, shine through the writing? I can only hope so, because the characters in my next novel are demanding to be released and so I must start writing that one. Thank you for this post Maggie. (PS I did make 2 critiquers cry at a certain part of the novel, which is a good thing. I think.)

  • kenia

    Good adivce to help for inspired writers in training and people how want to start on a story or novel of there own. I have a question and it is, will there be a sequel to the scorpio races of will it stand as a single novel?

  • Madeline

    Thank you so much! I am trying to write a book of my own,but it’s not going very well..but with pratice you get better,So maybe I will someday publish it.I agree with you by the way.


    Hello! I just wanted to say that I love your work and it continues to inspire to me to become an author! I am a teenager and was just wondering if you practiced writing a lot as a teenager? I am only asking as it is my dream to become a writer, but I am worried that I do not practice enough.

    Thank you!

  • Brena.R.S.

    I must say I love all your books, your writing style is AMAZING 😀 and that I never really thought about writing my own book, short stories to entertain my niece yeah but never actual stories until I read the Shiver Trilogy… now I cant stop my writing from becoming full on stories, granted I’d never publish them but thank you none the less as it makes me feel like I’ve at least accomplished something haha ;P
    I cant wait to read The Raven boys, the preview is bloody brilliant, when I got to the end of it I pouted like a child because I wanted the rest XD but your books do that to me, you make me look crazy when I get the metro and sit grinning like a fool while reading. So I just wanted to thank you, I don’t normally have a chance to fully express myself but when I write or read get a chance to re-read one of your books it seems to overflow… so thank you xxx Keep up the great work and I look forward to being able to read more from you 🙂

  • Angela

    I know my comment should focus on the beautiful advice you given, but I must tell you how I love the Scorpio Races. It’s my favorite book and I go around recommending it to everybody. It’s the best book I’ve ever read and it’s a story that I would’ve written if you’ve not.

  • My favorite books are those whose main characters feel like they could be my best friends.

  • Kaida

    *sigh* you make it sound so easy! You should write a book with tips on writing.

    p.s. I just finished reading Lament, its amazing! I feel like it ended to soon. I feel really bad for James though…

  • Ananya

    I felt like in The Scorpio Races especially, the characters were extremely well developed. They felt very real and had a life to them that I’ve never really found in any book before. I’ve tried some writing before and that happens to my characters, I think they are great but this isn’t expressed on the page. Sometimes, writing about negative characters is easier, because you have so many loathsome things to say about them the reader really gets a feel of who they are. Thank you for all the writing tips!

  • Eudis

    Oi Maggie,

    ‘m from Brazil – Sao Paulo state, would like to give congratulations for the beautiful book
    wrote, I just read ecelente chill magnifico think not even have words to describe how wonderful you are, I’m your fan.


  • Hi 🙂 I love love love Shiver and those in the series. Especially how Sam is into music. And I am very very soon going to buy all your other books. Am big fan. Your one of my favorite and awe-inspiring writers. #1

  • Ash

    Hi Maggie, Just wanted to tell you how much I love your books (the Shiver trilogy especially) and how you’re my favourite author of all time. I absolutely love reading your posts, they’re so funny but so helpful! You have inspired me greatly so start writing my self, also including wolves (I’m not copying I swear! I just love them!) so I hope it goes well 🙂

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Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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