Oddly enough, I had two writers ask me rather similar questions about writing a novel. (Tip on being a writer: get in a writers group—just a little shout-out to mine.)


The first question I was asked was this:  "Have you ever written a story where the main character/protagonist comes across as untrustworthy?" (The writer meant that the reader would feel they couldn't trust the protagonist.)

Here was my answer:
This is a very good way to keep a reader engaged. If the reader is uncertain of what the protagonist will do or say, then it will keep the reader very interested in how things will play out. In this sense, the protagonist is more or less an anti-hero. The anti-hero is commonly a side-character and not the protagonist, but that doesn't mean the anti-hero can't be the protagonist. Actually, I'm rather fond of an anti-hero being the protagonist. I think it makes the realism of the story a bit more, well, real.

There are plenty of books, stories, movies, and TV shows where the protagonist is actually an anti-hero. It's a struggle for the character to see themselves as a hero, either due to their past, thinking their actions were only a reflex of the muscles and not the heart, or simply because they themselves are bad people. Of course, I am quite certain there are other displays of anti-hero characters, but those are the main three that come to mind. In my opinion (as tantalizing as that may seem), I think the best antagonist a protagonist can have is himself.


The downside of having an untrustworthy protagonist is that one can go too far with the anti-hero push. If it gets to the point where the reader can't stomach the protagonist's actions or just doesn't want to root for him or her anymore, then you need to change your perspective. Not completely, but enough to make the character engaging and applicable again. But then again, if the reader is feeling this way, then you've most likely have already finished your book. Therefore, take some time away from the work—a few months, perhaps—and revisit the project with full honesty. If you sense that you have pushed the protagonist to completely conform to Mr. Hyde (so to speak), then therein lies your answer.

It is a brilliant scheme, and one that many have come to acknowledge as a great way to create more drama or controversy for the protagonist. In this case, unless you are certain that even you are coming to despise your main character, then wait until you have written your book and then make changes throughout. If at the end of your first draft you feel pleased with the character's outcome, then you won't need to worry much about the purposeful character flaws.

If you find yourself stopping well before the finish line, it would be best to start making character (in an ethical and moral sense) changes immediately.


The second question I received was in regard to style: "I use the ellipsis [...] a lot. The reason I use it so much is because I've always used it in my writing and it creates the flow that I am looking for. Do you think the reader will be confused or will they read it the way I read it? And if it would be confusing, should I start making the changes now?"

Here was my answer:
Definitely don't start making the changes now. Every writer has their own style. We all write a certain way and if we try to change that while writing a story, article, or novel, then we do ourselves a disservice. While you are writing—especially in this day and age—there are already a multitude of distractions that will help keep you from writing or keep you from getting into the flow of the story. The last thing you need is to add to those distractions. Write the way you write until you are finished.

My two biggest inspirations—if we shall call them that—for writing are Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. If you notice, those two writers are slightly similar in their style. Short, declarative sentences. Not a lot of fluff and very few commas. Whatever sentence can be ended with a period is ultimately finalized with a nice, round, black dot.

On the other hand, I recently finished a C.S. Lewis book entitled The Problem of Pain  (by the by, read this book—flat-out amazingly insightful on several grounds—for people from any religious perspective, including atheists) which oftentimes left me in a daze from his sentence structure. Lewis uses a massive amount of commas, colons and semicolons. Quite often, the sentences are very long, however, they are not empty, and each word serves a purpose.

These three writers have been heralded as some of the greatest writers over the past 100 years, despite their different writing styles. The reason is because they found their voice, their style, which ensured that it didn’t double as a free pass to waste words or try to impress (although Lewis, at times, seems to boast his prose, forcing me to love it nonetheless).


Going back to creating a disservice, however, I would caution against creating or pursuing a style that wrecks the imagination or concentration of the reader. If the reader is taken aback—not by the story—but by the sentence structure, then your hand should be forced to concede changes. There are still bad ideas out there when it comes to writing style—something I learned in my first novel.

If you stand so firmly by the side of your work and its style, despite the chagrin of readers and the advice of editorial council, then your work will surely fail. Don't be hardheaded, but also don't lose your voice in the midst of an editing storm. Quite often, the storm is one we create ourselves.

Therefore, let the story flow from you onto paper, but once you are finished, keep the reader in mind. A little bit of compromise will go a long way. But don't worry about those changes until you are finished with the product. If you happen to overuse ellipses, commas, semicolons, or colons, then perhaps you should see where you can make some changes. Just because writers are given the right to ignore it on occasion, doesn't mean punctuation isn't there for a reason. Let freedom guide your writing, but let sound advice guide your editing. Ultimately, the goal is to not lose the reader. Achieve that and you can use punctuation at your whimsical leisure.