1.14.2016

Who’s Leading the Expedition?

Readers pick up a novel expecting to go on a journey. Some authors explore the fringes of civilization, like Annie Proulx, while others burrow into the fringes of the city, like Jonathan Lethem. The exotic is examined in order to uncover the universal. This principle holds true across the entire spectrum of fiction, from commercial to literary.

When you are plotting out who will be taking this journey where, you should consider certain poles: bizarre vs. normal. If everyone wears magenta and cyan dashes in their hair, the reader is inhabiting the equivalent of a Star Wars bar. If everyone says weird stuff that sprays out from their fragmented personality, the reader may feel barred from entry; he’s too ordinary to understand. Someone in the proceedings has to ground the narrative so that the reader can participate.

That leads to the first choice. Is your protagonist a swashbuckler or a victim? The world that is explored can seem new because of the way it is viewed. The narrative voice displays idiosyncrasies that turn the quotidian into an object that deserves a fresh look. If the heroine is pushing the envelope, unexpected secrets are revealed because she forces them open. She wants to embrace the unknown, in other words. As she actively breaks down walls, the other characters around her serve the function of the reader: oh no, don’t do that.

If your lead is a victim, he is swept into a world beyond his ken. Usually, another major character wields the sledgehammer against the walls while the hero cringes at the thundering crashes. He blunders into discoveries and is displeased by what he finds. In this case, the reader understands him perfectly: I shy away from loud noises too. Even so, that character can’t be everyman. He must have some screw loose to want to keep staggering forward beside that sledgehammer guy.

Now let’s return to the person holding the pen. What intrigues you? What type of character can you write about? How do you envision the protagonist changing during the course of the book? 

What you decide helps to determine the unfamiliar places and customs of the novelistic journey. If you want to explore the intersection of solar panels and the Navajo, that’s fine, but how can you make that matter to the reader? Who embodies tradition and who wants to despoil the desert for the better good? If you figure that out before you start, you’ll have a lot easier time demarcating the route you’ll take.

Exercise: When you are laying out a list of character traits, remember that everything is relative. A person who has fixed habits can also long to wander free at some unknown time in the future. A person who finds shaving dull still doesn’t want to stink on the subway. When you mix and match, you find the ways that characters can push and pull each other.

“An exotic birthplace on its own is not informative of anything.”
—Italo Calvino

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine





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