Learn by doing: Discovering your strengths as a writer

I had to discover how to write.... by writing

I had to discover how to write…. by writing

One of the things I really admire in literature is a writer who can make me care about a character who is, when all is said and done, a despicable human being. (This intro is going somewhere, I promise). On the television side of things, Michael Scott from “The Office” is that kind of a character; I’ve always credited Steve Carrell, the actor, as well as the show’s writers for giving me a soft spot for him, because really, he’s just selfish and insecure and maladjusted. He’s not a person other people would generally like, but watching that show, you can’t help but root for him and wish him well.

On the book front, the best example I can currently come up with—besides Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler in “Gone with the Wind” is Royce Melborn from Michael J. Sullivan’s series “The Riyria Revelations.”

As you know if you follow my blog regularly, I write fantasy, so I also read a lot of fantasy. I read Sullivan’s books this summer; they feature a duo of rogues named Royce and Hadrian. Hadrian is the more respectable of the two—he has a more developed code of morals, and he abides by them—and I liked Hadrian from the beginning. Royce I hated at first. He worked as an assassin and he’s utterly self-centered with the exception of caring about two other people, but somehow, I learned to feel for him. And I’m glad I did, because his journey is a spectacular one.


One of the reasons I admire writers who can make readers care about awful people is that I know that’s not my strong point. I’ve never even tried to do that, because I could never pull it off. I’m much better working with characters who are, at the core, decent human beings. They aren’t perfect, but they’re people I’d like to know and would love to hang out with. My heroes are narcissists, or remorseless thieves.

I’ve always held strong admiration for things I don’t have the talent for. In fact, one of the major reasons I don’t like modern art is because I always say, “If I can do it, it isn’t art. If I can do it, it shouldn’t be hanging in a museum.” That’s just the way I think (for the most part), so I enjoy reading and thinking about characters of the sort I could never write with success, at least not as protagonists. But this leads to one last observation, the focus of this post:


As a writer (and in most aspects of life) it’s always good to know what you do well, and play up to your strengths. It’s also good to recognize where you falter, so you can either work to develop those skills or (as I do with characters of the Scarlett O’Hara type) avoid a situation that sets you up for failure. When I go to develop a story, I don’t envision Rhett Butlers or Royce Melborns as protagonists. Where I do well is throwing well-meaning, good people in difficult situations, situations where the right thing to do maybe isn’t so clear-cut. I’ve had success with that set-up, and while the characters and their problems vary, my novels follow that basic structure because it works for me consistently.

The key for most writers, I think, is to spend some time figuring out what characteristics you need in your stories to keep you engaged and, also, what your best passages and characters have in common. Then make those strengths prominent in your short stories or novels. Looking back, my very first novel and stories—though not things I could sell—constituted that process of discovery for me. Maybe some people know off the bat what they’re meant to write and why, but that wasn’t the case for me. I had to figure it out, and I “learned by doing.” I can’t guarantee that path will be successful for everyone, but “learning by doing” worked for me.


19 responses to “Learn by doing: Discovering your strengths as a writer

  1. Well said. When all is said and done, there’s no substitute for experience.

  2. Robin Hobb has done that well in her books too. Fitz in Assassin’s Apprentice is an incredibly frustrating character at times, but he’s also someone the reader can care about. Probably her best example is Kennit, the pirate captain, who is really manipulative, and eventually unforgivable, but even so he is somewhat sympathetic.

    • I haven’t read the Liveship Traders trilogy, but oh my gosh, I’ve read about Fitz and I totally agree with you. He is a great character, especially as a child! SO believable. Lots of flaws. When he gets older and he still whines a lot, it’s harder to take. But he’s dealt a hard hand 🙂

  3. This is so true no matter what type of story you tell! My ‘learn by doing’ taught me that writing 1st person is my strong suit as well as dialogue. Holding those two things close to my heart makes it so much easier to focus on the storytelling and developing my characters without worrying if what I’m doing is right. Great post!

    • thanks M.J.! Wow, I admire you if you can write first person narration…. I’ve never had the courage even to try that. The thought of having to write as someone ELSE would is too daunting for me.

  4. So true! My ‘learn by doing’ taught me dialogue and writing in 1st person are my strong strengths. I’ve become a better writer because of it! Great post!

  5. This is a great post for me today! My protagonist is going to go through quite a change during the course of the novel and she won’t be entirely likable at first. That is going to be tricky I think for a first novel. What I am going to try to do is show that deep down she is a good person, but so far life has beaten her down and she is kind of weak. Through association with the strong willed ghost of an Old West madam she will become strong and someone that readers can root for. I know this isn’t going to be easy, but I think the only way that you can do this is to intersperse good characteristics with the bad to make the readers want to find out more about them. Hopefully, I am on the right track with this! 🙂

    • I think you’re dead on! As long as you give your readers reason at the start to have SOMETHING to be drawn to, as long as they realize your protagonist has potential, I would think you’re fine. I LOVE stories of growth and redemption so much!!!

  6. I’m pretty good at setting up a story, the intrigue, great characters, and tension, but keeping it up toward the end tends to be my weakness. I find writing short stories helps so I’ve focused my shift on that for now. Thanks for an awesome post!

    • glad you enjoyed it! I’ve always wanted to write more short stories…. my problem is keeping them short. I always want to make them novels and keep developing, keep going. I guess I’m meant to be a novelist 🙂

  7. I can’t stand reading despicable characters, but increasingly, I enjoy writing them. I find the key to be not to make them all “black” in a gray world. If I give them redeeming qualities, but horrible deeds, it gives me a place from which to write.

    I could never write short stories until I started writing poems.

    • I should write more poetry, I think 🙂 And you’re right, a villain should definitely have some redeeming qualities. I have had a blast writing that kind of bad guy in my first two novels. In the third one, the villain’s a bit more despicable, BUT his grudge is totally legitimate, which I hope will put a fun spin on things.

  8. That kind of discovery took me years. Worth it. As for ‘despicable characters’ I’m more worried about them liking a character I wanted them to dislike. Over at TvTropes we call this “Draco in Leather Pants” and it has baffled me since I first read it.

    • hahaha! very true, Brian, very true. I’m always floored by people who like characters they obviously shouldn’t. (like Draco Malfoy). That can be a problem if your readers are rooting for the wrong characters!

  9. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 01-31-2013 « The Author Chronicles

  10. toninelsonmeansbusiness

    I enjoy reading what you and others have to say about your writing. I am just launching my first book which is a business book. The other books I have in mind to write are also business related.
    I do however have in the back of my mind a children’s book.

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