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

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