There are as many tropes in How to Write a Novel as there are bad novels.
- You must always start with action
- You must never start with dialogue
- Never italicize anything
- Never use passive verbs
- Never begin a sentence with “And,” “But,” or “Or”
- Never do flashbacks or dream sequences
- Don’t use too many words
- Don’t use too few words
I had an English professor in a novel workshop in college tell me, “Your hero should never cry.”
I’ll end the suspense right now; I’ve broken every one of these rules. Gleefully. And I am in good company. Read any popular book in any genre, and you are bound to find broken rules littering the pages.
I’m not here to advocate breaking the rules. But like every other tool, use it if it works and you can justify it. So please enjoy the first in a series about how I’m breaking the rules of writing.
For my fantasy novel, The Last Princess, I wanted to give some of the characters an extra dimension since they are part fae. And I wanted to stay authentic to each of the fae races’ literary origins, even though these characters are mostly human and many generations removed from their fae ancestors. So I went back to the country of origin for each type of character and gave many of them a foreign accent.
One of those rules you’re not supposed to break is: you’re never supposed to phonetically spell out foreign accents. However, since this is a book for readers between ages 9 and 12, I feared that my readers may not be able to “hear” a proper foreign accent without help. I wasn’t comfortable just saying, “She spoke with a Cockney accent” and hoping my readers would know what that sounded like. Plus – and here’s where I justify breaking this rule – I think it’s fun and really adds a distinctive layer to these characters.
The challenge here is to only put in enough to make the point, but not so much that it makes it difficult to read the dialogue.
Here’s an example from The Last Princess. Ogres were first introduced in French literature by Charles Perrault. So I named my ogre-born character Mr. Perrault, as a subtle tribute. This is the first fae-born Cat approaches on her quest, and she’s not at all sure what to expect, having read that ogres used to eat children. I thought giving him a French accent was deliciously ironic and fun:
Mr. Perrault lived across the street and about five houses down. Squirrel Scout cookies were an excuse to ring his doorbell, but what was I going to say next? “Hi. So … what’s it like being an ogre?” Maybe he didn’t even know he had ogre blood. What then? I was going to look like a complete nut case.
Or maybe he did know he had ogre blood. And maybe he liked it.
I swallowed as I stood on his doorstep, breathing through my mouth to avoid the smell. The doorbell button hung from a frayed wire, so I knocked, then fought down the urge to turn tail and forget the whole thing. Mrs. Dalyrimple’s words rang in my ears: “Don’t get eaten!”
What am I doing here?
The door jerked open, and the awful smell hit me like a punch in the stomach. Standing in the shadows of his dark doorway, Mr. Perrault towered over me, glowering. It took every bit of my strength to keep from screaming. He wore a blood-stained apron and had bare arms covered in black, curly hair. In one greasy fist he gripped a huge butcher knife with bits of red meat clinging to it. His nostrils flared as he sniffed me. “Cookies?” he grunted.
“Um … what?” I tore my eyes away from the gory knife.
“Zey are too sweet! And so small. One bite and poof! Zey are gone. We?”
I blinked, confused. “We?”
“Oui,” he said slowly. “It means ‘yes.’ You speak French, no?”
“Uh, no.” I shook my head.
“Bah!” He waved the knife at me and I took a hasty step back. “What do you want, little girl?”
My research told me dwarves were originally from German folklore. So I gave my dwarf-born character, Mr. Goldschmidt, a German accent and not a Scottish one like in the Lord of the Rings movies:
He wore a heavy leather apron covered with pockets and marked all over by dark burns and singe marks. The words “Goldschmidt Foundry” had been carefully burned into the leather on his chest, inside the shape of an anvil.
“You’re a blacksmith?”
He saw where I was looking. “This vas mine father’s. He vas a blackshmith. I do not like the heat so much.” He tapped his spectacles. “I am better vis little things, like your music box.”
“So you can fix it?”
“Yah, of course! Maybe. I have to look inside.” He returned to his workbench and sat down, pulling the music box closer.
My heart sped up. “And the magic will work? Nanny Schumacher said it was magical.”
“Vell, there is a problem vis that. The little brownie voman is cracked in the head.”
I stiffened. Nanny Schumacher was a bit odd, maybe, but that was no reason to call her names. “You don’t even know her! If she says it’s magical, then I believe her.”
“Ha! Not your friend. The little brownie voman in the music box, yah?” He pointed at the carved figures with the tip of a screwdriver.
There are many more fae-born characters throughout our book that Cat will have to interact with. Not all of them have foreign accents, but many do – most more subtle than these examples. But I feel like it brings them to life and helps them stand out from the humans in a way that is above and beyond a colorful description.
What rules have you broken in your own writing? And did you live to tell about it?