One Who Matters

In the search for a distinctive character, an author can choose from a list of footloose American archetypes. The ability to create a maverick is accentuated by trends in modern society. Values have become relative. The civilizing force of religion has declined. Couples divorce half the time. All of this leads to a solitary restlessness, which gives a writer an entire palette of colors.

It can lead to danger as well. A novel by its very nature explores unknown territory. If a protagonist ventures into situations that are unfamiliar to her, she may be cut off from those she knew before. Therein lies the potential problem. If all of the people she is meeting are strangers, who cares about her?

Someone who has a relationship with a character can cause a reader to sympathize with his plight. While a variety of familiar options is available, one striking choice is a child. The bond between parent and child is deeply instinctual. No matter how much a character has screwed up, he wants his child to think he’s a model. Even better, he feels a need to protect his children, and since child is so often father to the man, the reverse is also true. A child’s desire to save a vulnerable parent is reckless almost by decree.

In a way, modern trends favor this type of bond, because divorce means a character in trouble isn’t stuck with the kid. She can always go home to the other, usually more responsible parent. She can direct her hormone-laden anger against the stable parent. A teenager’s desire to tell her stepmother to stuff it, for example, increases her loyalty to her own mother. Equally as important, her rebelliousness is the same in spirit as the general havoc caused by the wayward parent. As a result, the tumult the protagonist is experiencing is joined with the tumult that all adolescents experience.

Simultaneously, the maverick is shown caring about his child. Whatever else he is doing wrong, he wants to do right by the kid. That, he is telling the reader, is who he really is. And we root for him because we come to like the kid too.

Exercise: A youngster must be old enough to be interesting, and for that reason you might want the floor to be a prepubescent. At that age the child knows enough to make decisions that have some maturity of wisdom. So when you pick the child, remember that she must possess the same bristling sparks as an adult character. Otherwise, their scenes will become cloying and dull.

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.”
—William Shakespeare

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Interested in Good

It is a curious phenomenon, considering that most authors are decent, law-abiding citizens, that so many imbue their evil characters with more brio than their good ones. I’ll be reading through a string of decent scenes about the good guys interacting when pow! I reach this scene filled with psychopathic swagger. The writing is so intense, so alluring that I’m left thinking, “Boy, the author really loves writing about the villain.”

The question then becomes: why can’t this be done for the hero? I understand the basic stumbling block. Good isn’t as interesting as evil. Yet if the one is to triumph over the other in the end, the shining knight must be able to hold the reader’s attention somehow.

Luckily, good and evil are not absolute categories. A person may perform a minor act of evil, such as not stopping his car to let pedestrians use the crosswalk, merely by being too lazy. He may witness a black person at work being insulted but not say anything, taking the easy route of fitting in. For that matter, eating chocolate cake while on a diet can be regarded as evil.

This ambiguity allows an author more freedom of scope. While the protagonist is aimed in a good direction, she can be given vexing personal issues in which good and evil are relative. I’ll use a common example and run with it, to show its possible complexity (i.e., ability to grip the reader). Let’s take an alcoholic partner. What do you do to stop a loved one from drinking to excess? You have to get along with the person, so you can’t hound him every night. If you do, you’ll get blasted, and to some degree, he’s got a right to fire off. Who likes to be nagged all the time? If you dislike it so much, why don’t you walk out the door?

That opens the avenue to background stories in which you can show how the heroine fell in love with the partner. In the future direction, it provides a way for the plot line to build, because of course you want to show greater and greater excess. Maybe the end isn’t a seven-car pile-up, but the ongoing clash is going to produce some bang-up result.

The protagonist isn’t evil, but fighting evil contains its own complications. If one method doesn’t work, you try another. The more things don’t work, the more force is applied. And then . . . where is the line between good and evil?

Exercise: We all have riveting experiences about which we can write with passion. Choose one in your personal life that has been echoing in your mind for years. Identify the issue and then think how it could be reshaped to fit your hero. Work out a skein of 7-8 subplot scenes in which the problem escalates step by step. Is it ever resolved at all?

“It is not true that good can only follow from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true.”
—Max Weber

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Rotating Mirror

When I edit a novel written by a man, I frequently find that the protagonist works well as an instrument of action. The only problem is that the depth of his personality is in inverse proportion to the excitement he creates. To give him more personal stature—in order for the reader to truly identify with him—I usually look for a woman character he can socialize with. Not to say a buddy relationship can’t produce sterling results, but most of the time, guys interacting with guys produce about as many inner mysteries as you might expect.

The main reason for such a pairing is to show a different side of the hero. We know what he’s like when facing opposition, but how does he react when he’s off the clock? How is he nice to someone he’s attracted to? How does he react to a woman who is strict? How does he deal with his screw-up younger sister?

You’ll notice that right from the get-go, I’m suggesting different types of relationships—not solely the James Bond variety. If you could develop all three of the relationships I’ve just mentioned, you’d reveal three different sides to him. This is a major function of a supporting character: to provide a prism through which to view the protagonist. That in turn adds a different facet to his personality, giving him more texture.

Yet a character cannot function solely as a mirror. If she is to appear in an extended series of scenes, she has to be interesting in her own right. How can she hold the reader’s attention otherwise? This is a critical mistake that many authors make. They think of the character in terms of her utility to the hero. The author does not step outside his own limited prism: what is the hero going to do next?

Hopefully, you draw up preliminary sketches for all of your characters, but if you’re inclined to feel your way through, you'll have to stop, look, and listen. Just like a child, you’re on the brink of discovering the lay of the land. Only in this case, you’re immersed in the world of made-up personalities. If you think of a woman character that is as rich in qualities as the hero, that challenges him to put his skills on display to match up. He’s emerging from the vague cloud in your mind and coming to life on the page.

Exercise: What do preliminary notes on a character consist of? Sure, write down the basic personality traits, what parent did what to her in the past. But go beyond that. What is her goal in the book? What does she want out of the hero? Is he a means to an end for her—just as she is to him? When you think through the steps of her plan, her scenes will become more intricate and compelling.

“A man does what he can; a woman does what a man cannot.”
—Isabel Allende

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.