True to Your Purposes

A nonfiction author can encounter a stumbling block when trying to prove that the book’s methods work. This is the lack of real-life examples. When you consider the different components that make up a single method, the reason why quickly becomes apparent. If you are writing a job-hunt book, for example, you may find that you don’t know any mothers personally who have reentered the work force by starting their own company. You don’t like the idea of making up such a person, even though you know they exist. So what do you do?

There are two possible solutions. The first one is obvious to anyone who has journalistic training. You go up on the web or read source material in a publication in order to find such an example. You most likely are using quoted excerpts from other authors, anyway, and this becomes a longer block of quoted text. Just make sure the material is less than 500 words (the maximum under the fair-usage law) and you cite the bibliographical material. 

If you have written the type of book that uses quotations informally, and you don’t want footnotes, there is a variety of ways around them. One accepted method is placing all of the citations in a section in the back of the book called Endnotes. If you give the page number on which the quote appears, as well as a few words from the material to identify it, you then list the bibliographical information there. 

The second solution is directly addressing the reader. The key word in such an example is “you.” Let’s say an author has a seven-step process for mothers starting their own business. The author starts with the statement: “Let’s say you want to do this.” The reader is taken through the steps, with possible obstacles raised and requirements, such as permits, pointed out. By using the reader as the subject of the example, you involve her even more than if you used the example of another person.

Exercise: Read through the manuscript, looking for passages in which an example would help anchor the point you’re trying to make. In order to pick an example that fits, read the passage carefully and write out in one sentence what point you’re trying to make. You can then enter that sentence in the search window of a browser to find an appropriate example.

“If we steal thoughts from the moderns, it will be cried down as plagiarism; if from the ancients, it will be cried up as erudition.” 
—Charles Caleb Colton

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


Dynamic vs. Static

A character running in place is primarily a plot issue. If a villain, for instance, issues yet another hissing threat to his captive, but doesn’t act upon it, the reader experiences two emotions: (1) annoyance because the plot line isn’t building and (2) boredom because of repetition.

More difficult to define is the power a lead character exerts over the course of a novel. She will be involved in a lot of plot events, no matter what. If she forces the issue on a number of those occasions, she is dynamic, right? The answer to that question balances on the fulcrum of plot versus character. If she entered the book a kung fu whiz and she leaves the book having chopped down worthy adversaries, she is the same person, unchanged by her journey. A reader hopes there will be a series, so she can do more of her kung fu magic.

The more enduring feat is changing the character’s outlook toward life. A prime example is one of my favorite characters: Bilbo Baggins. Here is a middle-class burgher, set in his ways, who ends up slaying a dragon. All along the way he is pinching himself: did I do that? This unathletic little shrimp ends up revered by his stern dwarf companions.

I choose this low-brow example to make the point that, even in an action-oriented genre, what this character does is not as important as how he changes inside. That’s why he is loved by readers, for his persistent bumbling his way through. Because Tolkien includes his internal changes, Bilbo rises above the crowd of deering-do meisters.

This difference can be used in any type of novel that has strong plotting. If a femme fatale only gloats after each hapless male has fallen to her wiles, she will remain slight. Okay, lure in #4 (yawn). If she starts to feel bad about what she’s doing as time goes on, however, now she would become interesting, particularly if there is one lover who makes her feel that way. She is not merely the puppet master; the tide of events she has set in motion pulls her off kilter as well.

An enactor with a single-minded purpose is easier to write. Wind him up and point him at a target. More difficult is thinking through the qualities inside that prevent him from marching straight. When you take that extra step, when doubt comes into play, you’re writing about conflicts we all wrestle with.

Exercise: Review the manuscript and write down the plot events in a list. Now write down how your chosen character affects those events. Is she doing the same thing every time? That tells you that the characterization is too thin. Step back and consider how she could be designed so that she’s having real problems with how things are going later on.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths.”
—Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Best Blinders

We live on a planet inhabited by billions of people, but we block out almost all of them as we proceed through our daily lives. So why don’t authors assume their characters do the same thing inside their imaginary worlds? Perhaps the reason is that authors are also creators of the worlds; they have a responsibility to care for all elements of their big garden (of anti-Eden, hopefully). In our real lives, we know the world is composed of massive agglomerations of past human mistakes, and we sensibly ignore as much of it as possible.

The reason for taking this skewed perspective on fiction is to spur a more blindered approach in crafting good characters. An entire world cataclysm may be happening around your chosen lead character, but what is she pursuing? Unless she is Wonder Woman, she is tending to the care of those immediately around her.

Let’s take as an example the terrible hurricane that afflicted Puerto Rico this past year. Are you, as the author, rushing from here to there to capture snippets of all the awful things that high winds and rain can wreak? Or are you focusing on one grandmother’s cottage in your hero’s backyard flattened by a ceiba tree?

Put like that, the answer seems obvious. So why is it that so many novels spend so much time metaphorically rushing from here to there? Everyone knows the warning, “Don’t spread yourself too thin,” but that applies to characters as well. All of the characters are thin because they are only inhabitants of a large construct. As opposed to: they are the only reason for creating the construct.

One person, looking outward at a world that seems determined to mess up her day. That is a useful place to start a novel. In the case of a hurricane, to extend that example, what does the character know about hurricanes before it strikes? Some old tale from the fall of ’39, no doubt, told by her grandmother. Write that scene. Maybe more current news of storms during the age of global warming, related by her husband, who knows incidental facts about everything. How does she react to that, given she realizes her husband is a know-it-all? Of course, anyone who has ever experienced a hurricane knows that it creates havoc beyond your worst imaginings. What pieces of it does she see? How does she deal with those she loves that have been ruined in the aftermath? Now, as a reader, I’m riveted by what’s happening in that little corner of the world.

Exercise: If you find your novel has sprawled outward to cover too many characters and events, stop and count to five. You will allow yourself to cover only five points of view of the events. Now, choose who you like the best. Double the number of his scenes. Pretty soon you’ll be narrating true human drama.

“I'll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you'll come to understand that you're connected with everything.”
—Alan Watts

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.