If you, like me, read a lot more than is probably good for your health, you will probably have noticed that there are a lot of books that are very similar to each other, whether modern or classic. Just go to your library or local bookstore and pick up five random romance novels or thrillers (or any genre of your choice). They are most probably very similar.
The same types of dramatic plots (example: girl & boy meet, fall in love, but something keeps them apart until the end) and the same stereotypical characters (example: troubled detective must solve a case before time runs out). The specifics may be different, but most of the themes, descriptions, and plots are so similar that they fall easily into a sea of books never to be recalled again in your memory.
But then there are books that stand out. Famous modern ones I’ll mention that most people probably know are the Harry Potter series, Game of Thrones series, and romances like The Fault in Our Stars. What makes these stand out from the millions of books published each year? And how can I—or you—write a novel that does not simply end up forgotten at a Goodwill store.
This is probably that most important aspect that I will be talking about in this post. I always believe that, if the plot is great but the characters are poor, than the book will be bad; but if the plot is mediocre and the characters are good, the book will be great.
For example, what do you assume is most important when writing a fantasy novel? I bet most people will think that it’s the world. Take Harry Potter’s magical world of flying hippogriffs and dastardly horcroxes. You would assume that it is the world itself that made the book series one of the bestselling of all time. But wait! Think again. What was talked about most concerning the Harry Potter series? Yes, everyone agreed that the world was cool—I mean, I don’t know anyone who would not want to go to Hogwarts—but when you hear the word “Harry Potter,” it’s usually not about the world. It’s about how awesome George and Fred Weasley are. Or debating who will Hermione Granger end up with at the end of the series?
It was the characters. It has always been the characters that readers can root for and hate. In George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series, we want to know who will die next. We root for Daenerys and love the witty Tyrion Lannister. We wanted to see Joffrey die a horrible death. It was not the world that readers loved so much—despite the exceptionally detailed world adding a sense of life to the characters’ lives. No, it is the characters that we love…or hate.
So write a typical fantasy story, but give it characters that feel real, flawed, and relatable. That is one of the best tricks to writing a book that stands out.
“Don’t give me gravity and then change the world and say everybody can fly.” –my sister
One of the things that annoys me the most about novels is when an author makes a rule or statement and then changes things for the sake of the plot. For example when a character always has a certain reaction to a certain situation and then magically changes just because the author wants to have something particular happen.
The same thing happens frequently in fantasy novels concerning magic. The magical rules are set firmly in place, only to be broken for no reason. If you do want to have the rules broken, have the protagonist find a loophole or realize he/she has missed something. While I did say the plot is not as important as the characters, that does not in any way mean that the world and plot needs to be forgotten.
Keep rules consistent and, if there are no rules, then that is the one rule and stick to it (for example, do not make something impossible in a world where everything is possible, or vice versa, without a logical reasoning). This issue as kept many books I have read from being great.
Also, keep things realistic. Take romance. A common tactic an author uses is to rush things way too much, making the romance feel contrived and unreal. Even if your book is set on an alien planet inhabited with biting coat hangers, remember that people will relate to things that are similar to their own experiences. If not, you might find your readers rolling their eyes and shaking their heads at characters acting unrealistic or the world being unreasonable.
Any world functions by rules. Work with this to bring your book to life.
In order to write a unique book you have to read what’s out there. I do not mean you have to read every book ever written, because that is not possible even for the fastest speed reader. Instead, read books in the genre you are writing in. If it is romance, see what other authors do.
Analyze books to recognize what they are lacking. Ask yourself, “If I wrote this book, what would I do differently.” Be specific. Do not just say, “Well, I would have had the female lead end up with a different guy in the end.” Instead, look at why. Was it because the second guy was better for her or because the male lead lacked something?
Every writer is unique. You just may not know that you’re unique. And as a unique person with unique experiences and interests, it would seem natural that every book would be different. Right? Well, not necessarily.
As Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is nothing to writing. All you have to do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Let me explain. The reason why, even though we are all unique individual people, we do not necessarily write individually is because we do not bleed into our writing. This is because many of us truly do not know ourselves. We are caught in a fast-paced world and the deepest thing we contemplate during any given day is an internet meme.
In order to write uniquely, you must first understand how you are unique. Get to know yourself like you would any of your characters—as a real person. And look outside yourself. Look at how people see you and how you see people. All this gives your writing a depth that makes it uniquely you.
Just sit in front of a computer, turn off your phone and Netflix, and just bleed unto the page. That is truly how you write a one-of-a-kind novel.
If you take one thing and only one thing away from this post, it would be to think. Think about everything. About what you believe. And why. Why are certain books good or bad? Why do you see certain people in life as good and bad? What ticks you off? What makes you happy? Just think. Contemplate. About everything. Then and only then do I believe that anyone can write a truly exceptional, unique book.
Best wishes on your writing adventures,