Picking a Loser

In its most rudimentary definition, a novel traces the course of a series of obstacles a protagonist encounters. This makes sense, since suffering is the fundamental plight of humankind. The hardships that are faced should be interesting, but the choice of the lead character(s) matters much more in terms of reader identification.

Picking an ordinary sort can be done. Average Joe is thrown into a maelstrom— with the underlying message that this could happen to you too. Yet that is not what authors, particularly of the literary sort, generally do. They tend to pick a loser, someone who has never fit in socially, did not marry happily, has not achieved financial success, or any number of worldly goals that we spend our every day trying so hard to accomplish. It is almost as if we are trying to say, “Please, let me be good at something.”

When futility is the baseline, the obstacles become more interesting. An excellent book I’m reading, The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan, makes this point beautifully. In capsule, the book’s launching premise is: two boys are killed during a terrorist explosion in a New Delhi marketplace. The story follows, in turn, the bereaved father, the mother, and a friend who miraculously survived. What is the salient quality of all three? They were already struggling before the bomb went off, and the terrible loss only casts them further into their untenable orbits.

When you are choosing characters, the first impulse is to pick paragons. That’s the sort that would go off on adventures. Yet the loser contains plenty of qualities that you can turn to your advantage. Chief among these is vulnerability. An insecure person tends to question herself. Those questions alone allow you to penetrate further into what the character is like. Even more valuable, the doubts may very well be ones you ask yourself. That’s a live wire you can tap.

Such positioning also forces you to pay less attention to how a character will perform in your made-up mess and more attention to: how would the character end up in the mess? That is a paradigm shift in terms of narrative approach. You’re looking at the scene from the inside out, not imposing the scene upon some blurry mass who does your plot business. Right, Muscle Eddie, he’s my man. Instead, maybe Eddie is afraid of all the unwanted attention his muscles attract. He only pumped iron in the first place because he was such a loser.

Exercise: No character is merely a vessel into which you pour your personal problems. When you pick a loser, try to keep a wry sense of her failings. That way you’ll have to really probe: what weird feeling does she have now? You don’t slip into your own neurosis; you’re trying to understand how your character could have possibly fallen so far into hers.

“Without losers, where would the winners be?”
—Casey Stengel

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


One Who Matters

In the search for a distinctive character, an author can choose from a list of footloose American archetypes. The ability to create a maverick is accentuated by trends in modern society. Values have become relative. The civilizing force of religion has declined. Couples divorce half the time. All of this leads to a solitary restlessness, which gives a writer an entire palette of colors.

It can lead to danger as well. A novel by its very nature explores unknown territory. If a protagonist ventures into situations that are unfamiliar to her, she may be cut off from those she knew before. Therein lies the potential problem. If all of the people she is meeting are strangers, who cares about her?

Someone who has a relationship with a character can cause a reader to sympathize with his plight. While a variety of familiar options is available, one striking choice is a child. The bond between parent and child is deeply instinctual. No matter how much a character has screwed up, he wants his child to think he’s a model. Even better, he feels a need to protect his children, and since child is so often father to the man, the reverse is also true. A child’s desire to save a vulnerable parent is reckless almost by decree.

In a way, modern trends favor this type of bond, because divorce means a character in trouble isn’t stuck with the kid. She can always go home to the other, usually more responsible parent. She can direct her hormone-laden anger against the stable parent. A teenager’s desire to tell her stepmother to stuff it, for example, increases her loyalty to her own mother. Equally as important, her rebelliousness is the same in spirit as the general havoc caused by the wayward parent. As a result, the tumult the protagonist is experiencing is joined with the tumult that all adolescents experience.

Simultaneously, the maverick is shown caring about his child. Whatever else he is doing wrong, he wants to do right by the kid. That, he is telling the reader, is who he really is. And we root for him because we come to like the kid too.

Exercise: A youngster must be old enough to be interesting, and for that reason you might want the floor to be a prepubescent. At that age the child knows enough to make decisions that have some maturity of wisdom. So when you pick the child, remember that she must possess the same bristling sparks as an adult character. Otherwise, their scenes will become cloying and dull.

“It is a wise father that knows his own child.”
—William Shakespeare

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Interested in Good

It is a curious phenomenon, considering that most authors are decent, law-abiding citizens, that so many imbue their evil characters with more brio than their good ones. I’ll be reading through a string of decent scenes about the good guys interacting when pow! I reach this scene filled with psychopathic swagger. The writing is so intense, so alluring that I’m left thinking, “Boy, the author really loves writing about the villain.”

The question then becomes: why can’t this be done for the hero? I understand the basic stumbling block. Good isn’t as interesting as evil. Yet if the one is to triumph over the other in the end, the shining knight must be able to hold the reader’s attention somehow.

Luckily, good and evil are not absolute categories. A person may perform a minor act of evil, such as not stopping his car to let pedestrians use the crosswalk, merely by being too lazy. He may witness a black person at work being insulted but not say anything, taking the easy route of fitting in. For that matter, eating chocolate cake while on a diet can be regarded as evil.

This ambiguity allows an author more freedom of scope. While the protagonist is aimed in a good direction, she can be given vexing personal issues in which good and evil are relative. I’ll use a common example and run with it, to show its possible complexity (i.e., ability to grip the reader). Let’s take an alcoholic partner. What do you do to stop a loved one from drinking to excess? You have to get along with the person, so you can’t hound him every night. If you do, you’ll get blasted, and to some degree, he’s got a right to fire off. Who likes to be nagged all the time? If you dislike it so much, why don’t you walk out the door?

That opens the avenue to background stories in which you can show how the heroine fell in love with the partner. In the future direction, it provides a way for the plot line to build, because of course you want to show greater and greater excess. Maybe the end isn’t a seven-car pile-up, but the ongoing clash is going to produce some bang-up result.

The protagonist isn’t evil, but fighting evil contains its own complications. If one method doesn’t work, you try another. The more things don’t work, the more force is applied. And then . . . where is the line between good and evil?

Exercise: We all have riveting experiences about which we can write with passion. Choose one in your personal life that has been echoing in your mind for years. Identify the issue and then think how it could be reshaped to fit your hero. Work out a skein of 7-8 subplot scenes in which the problem escalates step by step. Is it ever resolved at all?

“It is not true that good can only follow from good and evil only from evil, but that often the opposite is true.”
—Max Weber

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Rotating Mirror

When I edit a novel written by a man, I frequently find that the protagonist works well as an instrument of action. The only problem is that the depth of his personality is in inverse proportion to the excitement he creates. To give him more personal stature—in order for the reader to truly identify with him—I usually look for a woman character he can socialize with. Not to say a buddy relationship can’t produce sterling results, but most of the time, guys interacting with guys produce about as many inner mysteries as you might expect.

The main reason for such a pairing is to show a different side of the hero. We know what he’s like when facing opposition, but how does he react when he’s off the clock? How is he nice to someone he’s attracted to? How does he react to a woman who is strict? How does he deal with his screw-up younger sister?

You’ll notice that right from the get-go, I’m suggesting different types of relationships—not solely the James Bond variety. If you could develop all three of the relationships I’ve just mentioned, you’d reveal three different sides to him. This is a major function of a supporting character: to provide a prism through which to view the protagonist. That in turn adds a different facet to his personality, giving him more texture.

Yet a character cannot function solely as a mirror. If she is to appear in an extended series of scenes, she has to be interesting in her own right. How can she hold the reader’s attention otherwise? This is a critical mistake that many authors make. They think of the character in terms of her utility to the hero. The author does not step outside his own limited prism: what is the hero going to do next?

Hopefully, you draw up preliminary sketches for all of your characters, but if you’re inclined to feel your way through, you'll have to stop, look, and listen. Just like a child, you’re on the brink of discovering the lay of the land. Only in this case, you’re immersed in the world of made-up personalities. If you think of a woman character that is as rich in qualities as the hero, that challenges him to put his skills on display to match up. He’s emerging from the vague cloud in your mind and coming to life on the page.

Exercise: What do preliminary notes on a character consist of? Sure, write down the basic personality traits, what parent did what to her in the past. But go beyond that. What is her goal in the book? What does she want out of the hero? Is he a means to an end for her—just as she is to him? When you think through the steps of her plan, her scenes will become more intricate and compelling.

“A man does what he can; a woman does what a man cannot.”
—Isabel Allende

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Rich Hands in a Poor Garden

One of the advantages of writing a series revolving around the same core cast is the growing richness of the portrayals. A large part of writing any novel consists of discovering what the lead characters are like. How fully a mature version emerges can determine how well the book as a whole succeeds. That advanced knowledge of a character can then be transferred to a second book and those after that.

What cannot be carried over is a fresh plot. While you were tinkering around with the characters in that first book, you were also discovering how the story would develop. That organic process may have worked well the first time around, but it likely will not in later utterances. Why is that?

When you have a variety of players, you’re inclined to find things for them to do. A scene may be devised for the sidekick to the hero, for instance, because he’s so peculiar in that wonderful way. Plus, you decide to give him a wife in order to mine his peculiarity even further. This process is repeated for a number of major characters, giving them scenes in a regular rotation.

Pretty soon, though, you’ll discover a distressing development. Writing for all of your beloved characters has a centrifugal effect on the novel as a whole. They’re spinning out into their separate orbits. Yes, you may have started with a compelling main plot, but it is proving too thin a reed to support so many wayward events.

The process of tinkering to discover new plot developments needs to be explored more fully before you start page 1. Each of the major characters—at whatever level of importance you decide—needs to participate in a plot line that progresses each time toward her individual goal. If you want to give a character a spouse, that’s fine, but first determine how that marital combination can produce or finesse obstacles for the character.

Once your notes show concrete advances that each main character will take, now examine the whole. How can the separate plot lines intersect, and at which points in the novel does that happen? The later the intersection, the more important the plot. What you’ll discover by laying out the skeins separately is which characters truly deserve to lead the next book.

Exercise: If you have already written a follow-up book, draw up a list for each major character. Go through each scene and write down in a sentence or two what plot advance the scene made. When you’re done, look at the list and ask yourself: how much did it move the character’s story forward? Most of the time that will tell you how much she should be featured and how many scenes should be cut.

“A man may be so much of everything that he is nothing of anything.”
—Samuel Johnson

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Your Slant

We are impressionable creatures, and what we write tends to reflect what we read. Fledgling writers often strive for the neutrality found in media reportage. This approach has drawbacks for numerous reasons, but I’ll confine myself merely to the effect it has on a writer’s approach to writing descriptions.

Most descriptions that I edit show one quality above all: an earnest desire to describe an object as accurately as possible. Those who take the neutral approach employ words that define the object, particularly the right colors. If you are careful enough, such descriptions can drill down deeply enough into details to create a visual image.

I would like to advance another way of seeing them. A description often reminds me of an Impressionist painting. The artist does not convey the subject’s meaning through painstaking rigor to get the cheek blush just right or the wheel’s shadow in chiaroscuro. Rather, the vibrant colors and thick impasto are meant to invoke feelings in the viewer. What a great summer day! What a beautiful woman!

When you only have black etchings on white paper, the best descriptions often reveal aspects of character. Rather than getting every detail of a Hawaiian lanai correct, why not focus on those details that describe the narrator’s reaction to the feast? Let’s say the owner has mounted a collection of whalebone knives on one wall. Okay, you could describe the knives’ curvature, or their mottled surface from age. But why not tell the reader how seeing them impacts the protagonist? “On one wall hung a row of whalebone knives that made me wonder if their owner carried on ghoulish activities in the dead of night.” Or describe the owner by his knives: “On one wall he displayed a row of whalebone knives, but the collection seemed forlorn hanging behind his huge new flat-screen TV.”

As readers, we’re intrigued by the narrator’s reaction first; we can participate in that emotion. So, you don’t have to toil for lonely hours over the perfect bon mot. Tell us how you feel about it. Then all you need are the broad strokes.

Exercise: Check your descriptions in any given chapter. Have you assigned personal qualities to any of them? A certain number of them want to remain neutral. A road sign is a road sign, for example. An occasional hill does rise off to the right in Nebraska. Try to focus on those objects about which the narrator could offer an opinion. Depending on her major characteristics, shading can be added to add humor, paranoia, anger, delight, or a wide variety of emotions. Give us her first impression, in other words, and then get down to the details.

“People on the outside think there's something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn't like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that's all there is to it.”
—Harlan Ellison

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Borrowing Too Much

Anyone wanting to write nonfiction usually finds that a number of books have already been written in his chosen area of expertise. This is especially common in the realm of business books. From Stephen R. Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Successful People to Jim Collins’ Good to Great, an author can find all sorts of books that contain catchy hooks and clear-cut examples. The prospective author is frequently a business executive, so he may have spent hours on a plane reading all of the books in the literature.

Because writing is often perceived by a neophyte as a return to younger, more idealistic days, she may revert to college habits when starting to compile her book. Maybe she doesn’t use a yellow highlighter anymore, but she hunts for good quotes from all those great books and gathers them for use in her own. If she is widely read enough, she can collect hundreds of quotes from dozens of thought-provoking authors.

This diligence does have its rewards, because variety is the spice of life. But an author makes a grave mistake if he believes his readers will react to his copious research the way his teacher once did. A reader expects an author to be an authority, and that means being in command of what he writes. Why should I read your book if all I’m getting out of it is somebody else’s work?

Taking command of each topic you are covering is the hard part in writing. The reader knows basically all of the stuff you’re writing about. The question is: what is your take on it? Concept is what sets a great book apart from a good one. Creating a brand-new structure—a paradigm—in which all of the research can be slotted in a logical place makes a book your own.

When an author is showing so much deference, her plan, or step-by-step program, may not appear until a later chapter. That’s because she feels that it’s not so original, not worthy of putting ahead of gods like Covey. That is attacking the problem backward, though. If you demand of yourself that your concept must appear in Chapter 1, and that all of the material that follows must be governed by it, guess what happens? You work harder on that concept. Precisely because you have to make all of those research pieces align, you hammer the concept into a flexible, expansive shape that accommodates them. Now you’re in control.

Exercise: Draw up a list of topics you want to cover. Then read through each piece of research and assign it to a certain category. If one chapter, for example, covers different options after losing your job, create separate pools of examples for each option. That way you will write your material first, then slot in the examples to fit within your construct.

“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation. The most original writers borrowed one from another.”

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Relying on Heroes

When an author decides to include a real-life person in a novel that takes place in the past, the natural inclination is to research that figure intensively, if for no other reason than to avoid screwing up. Having a bushel full of facts can be a terrific basis for drawing up personality traits for the character. Scenes can be written from that point of view with some surety that they will ring true.

Such confidence that you’ve done your homework does not, however, change the fundamental principles of fiction writing. Unless your portrayal is a literary deep dive into the personage’s life, those scenes must still advance the plot. All of the characters in the book are ranked by how much they are driving the story forward.

A scene that doesn’t do that job most likely involves a lot of dialogue. No matter how smart and witty it is, it can devolve into nattering. This is where a historical figure’s point of view can be so dangerously seductive. Maybe Aaron Burr would rib Thomas Jefferson over being a rube in the city, but what is the reader getting out of the scene besides clever repartee, colonial-style?

A second principle concerns the reader’s familiarity, and thus identification, with a character. If Aaron Burr, to continue that example, starts cracking jokes about all of his mistresses, the reader may be left smiling awkwardly. Were there any scenes earlier with a mistress? the reader may wonder. Was I supposed to know that about him?

In this case, a real-life person may work better if she is paired up with a leading fictional character. If your heroine has two left thumbs when it comes to sewing, a scene with Betsy Ross takes on a different meaning. It may be that the historical figure is a foil in a mystery told by a wisecracking protagonist. You can even use historical perception of type in a running gag. In one scene Betsy is still sitting primly in the parlor while a debauched Continental Congress party is swirling around her.

Using a historical figure as merely an accompaniment to a main character often is the best strategy. You get the glow without the limits of what the person was really like. That arrangement puts the characters that the reader really gets to know in their proper place.

Exercise: Go through the manuscript, and each time a historical character appears, write down how he advanced the plot. If a major character appears in that same scene, also write down how she advanced the plot. A single sentence or two for each character for each entry on your list. When you’re finished, you’ll see what the historical character is really doing—for your book.

“I am thankful the most important key in history was invented. It's not the key to your house, your car, your boat, your safety deposit box, your bike lock or your private community. It's the key to order, sanity, and peace of mind. The key is ‘Delete.’”
—Elayne Boosler

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Cap the Gushing Well

Anyone with a modicum of experience in romantic attraction knows that devotion goes only so far. This is particularly true during the courtship phase of a relationship. If either party shows an inclination toward slavery to the other, the one being worshipped tends to edge away. This reluctance stems not so much from feeling unworthy of such adulation as the fact that faithfulness quickly becomes tiresome.

I raise this point because in my profession, I am often exposed to a paradox. Most men I know in real life are akin to statues. You can say pretty much anything to them and they don’t flinch. That stoicism intrigues the opposite sex, who see mystery when most times it is a void. A guy just will not admit he has feelings, even to himself.

Now let’s look at books. I find myself frequently telling male authors not to make their romantic swains too steadfast. It’s a puzzling phenomenon, since I know how many books have been written about men’s inability to commit. I know guys are the reason we have the term “midlife crisis.” So I’m not sure why writing a novel brings out the tender side in my sex.

Love at first sight may actually happen, but it is not interesting to read about. When I bring this to a male author’s attention, what tends to occur is the opposite of what I am advising. I use the word “fun” a lot: make the romance fun. You know, do a cartwheel on Fifth Avenue. Delight your new amour with your spontaneity and cheer. Yet the revised scene I get back is deathly serious. The author doubles down on the character’s fealty. Entire paragraphs are written about how incredibly sensitive the hero is—not like a statue at all.

Do us all a favor. Develop a sense of humor. Lighten up. You’re in the business of entertainment. Rather than going inward, think of fun things your character can do outwardly. Have him buy ballet tickets on the spur of the moment. Have him suggest they go out for an ice cream cone. Heck, have him direct their walk past a local playground to watch all the little kids running around. But whatever you do, get him off his emoting ass.

Exercise: Guys are good at writing action scenes. If you know this is a strength of yours, pursue the course of romance this way. If a guy feels attracted to a gal, have him do something embarrassing to prove he isn’t. If he feels the gal is attracted to him, have him remark on it—and then write out her reaction. Don’t pine away for the reader’s benefit. We’re waiting for the fireworks.

“The only sin passion can commit is to be joyless.”
—Dorothy L. Sayers

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.