1.12.2016

A Force for Good

A mentor once passed on a good piece of advice about commercial fiction. She pointed out that despite all the fun readers have watching evil unfold, they will become disheartened if no one makes an effort to right the wrongs. The failure to grasp this principle arises again and again in the manuscripts I edit. We watch evil romp while the good guys wait around for the clues to pile up. After all, if they were truly effective crime fighters, they would cut off future acts of evil before the reader has a chance to enjoy them.

One strategy to maintain a reader’s interest in the hero is creating a fuller character. While the antagonist may be given to fomenting mayhem, delightful (to read) in and of itself, his portrayal can be narrowed by concentrating more on what he does than why he does those things. Since most criminals are stupid, this is not unrealistic. A character with a bent for immediate gratification is not as complex—not holding our attention long-term—as one who has an iron in several fires. A reader’s interest also wanes as the senseless acts of violence start to blend into each other.

The metaphor of several fires might be switched out for a more practical term: several plots. While a heroine is waiting for the acts of evil to be committed, she can use her position of primacy to engage us in other spheres of interest. The most obvious, if she is a crime fighter, is solving a secondary crime, or string of them. A habitual youthful offender that she knows through family ties is only one example of such a subplot. 

A complicated family or work force affords opportunities in another secondary realm. Janet Iovanovich, to name only one, has made a best-selling career out of a screwed-up family. If you raise a vexing, original problem for the hero, such as a wayward son who lives with his mother, the hero has an issue that captures the reader’s interest. Even better, as the book goes on, the personal nature of the hero’s involvement gains in importance—in other words, it has legs—even as the repeated evil acts start to become numbing.

A third possibility is a compelling romantic counterpart. What many thriller authors fail to understand is that the tension inherent in romance is still tension, capable of fueling any story. The key failing I see here is not giving the heroine enough obstacles to true love. If the protagonist’s romantic counterpart isn’t causing trouble, what is he doing in your book?

Exercise: Examine the first half of your novel with a dual-column chart in hand: white hat and black hat. In a sentence or two, describe what each scene is about, assigned to either the protagonist or antagonist. (You can skip scenes not involving either.) Look, side by side, row by row, how the one is stacking up against the other. If evil keeps scoring strikes while good twiddles its thumbs, you better start shoring up the protagonist with character work.

“The world is a dangerous place to live, not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don't do anything about it.”     
—Albert Einstein

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine





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