9.27.2016

Among the Many, One

Singling out examples among a general trend is a standard practice in journalism. Look at any feature article, and it begins with a personal example. The opportunity that such a practice affords to a fiction writer is even greater, because a novel is constructed by braiding relationships. The example that is pointed out to the reader can then become a means to enhance the development of a protagonist.

Such a strategy works when your main character is part of a group that is acted upon by evil forces. In a historical novel, this could be a pilgrimage. In a dystopian novel, it could be a medical experiment. The members of the group may well be split out into individual actors that assume their own identities as the story unfolds. Yet how do they stand in relation to the main character?

Let’s assume that your heroine is plucky, adventurous, swashbuckling—whatever qualities you choose in order to make sure that readers are drawn to her. Such a character, in breaking the social mold, may need to be abrasive. You don’t flout the norm, after all, by being nice. The cumulative effect that such elbow swinging has, however, may start to sour the reader on her. She may spurn good people, such as a brother, who are just trying to help. You want her to be fiercely independent, but that stance has consequences.

This is where the singled-out crowd member comes in. That person is more vulnerable to the power of the villain. He is more like us, in other words. If he can develop a relationship to the heroine whereby she repeatedly helps him out, that abrasive quality of hers is tempered—by the good she is doing for this one person. It might be that by the end, the victim turns around and provides the heroine with valuable help, even if it consists only of imparted wisdom.

The consequences of long-term involvement can impact the novel’s depth as well. If the good-friend victim ends up dying later in the book, we feel badly for him. We join the protagonist in her grief and anger that such evil was perpetrated upon him. We not only like her better; we’re rooting for her as she rights this terrible wrong to her fellow victim.

Exercise: If you have already completed a draft and find yourself in this situation, comb through the crowd scenes. You’ll usually see a succession of victims. See if you can find one character you’d like to elevate. Then put him in each of those crowd scenes, allied with the protagonist, talking to her, participating with her. Over a run of scenes, his value to her will continue to increase.

“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.”
—Helen Keller

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine




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