Withering on the Vine

When an author is planning a new novel, the first step is often jotting down notes about its projected lead characters. You might decide that a heroine should be a combat veteran, for example, because women serving in the front lines is fresh territory for a novel to explore. You work out a few background sketches, maybe involving a friend who dies in a battle—the female buddy story. Pretty soon you’ve filled out 5-10 pages, and you’re feeling pretty good. The character is original, and you have a good sense of what she’s going to do.

Sure enough, the first 100 pages go swimmingly. Maybe she’s come home on compassionate leave to attend her mother’s funeral. War fatigue and irritation with loved ones back home mark her early scenes, along with a few of those back stories from your notes. As the book goes on, though, and her friends try to interest her in an available guy, for instance, she starts to feel more ordinary. You’ve already done the war-weariness thing, perhaps a few times, and one of her friends finally tells her she has to move on. The reader nods his head vigorously: please, show us something new.

What you’ve done is play out the string. You had a great initial premise, but you didn’t think through how it could be kept alive under different circumstances. A character trait can maintain its stamina only by events that occur during the novel. The story has moved on since page one. So how come you aren’t finding out new ways in which, say, the above character’s combat experience keeps evolving in the domestic sphere?

Successive events need to have consequences. Using the running example, say the ex-soldier smacks down a hands-on drunk date in an early scene.  Now what happens in response? Do people in the town start to shun her? What happens if she then fires back at a cussed farmer who declares it’s against nature for women to be fighting? It could very well be that she is glad to be home, where she doesn’t have to fire a rifle. But she’s not going to tell that old coot he’s right.

She hasn’t stopped being a veteran, but she’s also moved on. She’s not only back, but you’re using plot events to force her to evolve. She learns how to use her combat training in a new way. Out of an interesting shell has emerged new promise.

Exercise: When you’re still drawing up those initial notes, think about how to employ a character’s unique characteristics at different points in the book, even if only for laughs. A nerd with a processor for a brain, for example, could become annoyed with the pump for a backyard pool and end up fixing the motor. See if you can put those traits in the character’s hands.

“Men are mortal. So are ideas. An idea needs propagation as much as a plant needs watering. Otherwise both will wither and die.”
—B. R. Ambedkar

Copyright @ John Paine, 2016

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