9.14.2017

Using Others as a Yardstick

The changes that lead to a character’s turning point stem mainly from how he reacts within, but the progression can also be gauged by how others react to him. That’s because a reader is swayed by the opinions of a third party. Unless we are given a reason otherwise, we tend to believe what is written on the page. For example, we can be thinking, as we’re reading, that the protagonist sure likes to spend money, and if another character remarks on it, we feel that our guess is confirmed. That supporting character’s reaction has given us an insight into the lead character.

A friend of the protagonist works well as a gauge in a character arc. After all, who knows how much a person changes better than someone who knows where she started from? The observations made by the friend need not be passive remarks, like commenting on a new haircut. The friend can be upset because the heroine is changing, and they can fight about why she hasn’t stayed in the old-shoe place that the friend found comfortable. A number of these fights can lead to a total break, whether temporary or permanent, which can disturb both the protagonist and the reader.

A stranger that the protagonist gets to know can perform the same function. Although his remarks, or looks, operate on a less-informed level, a stranger also is less encumbered by the preconceptions of a longtime friendship. So if your hero finds himself trying to solve the murder of his sister, a private detective he hires can show progressive reactions to the increasingly bold things that the hero says. “Whoa, slow down, Junior.” A half dozen of these remarks over the course of the book can be very useful markers for the reader.

Such work can be overdone. If you’re trying to explain how Clark Kent transformed into Superman, remarks about how amazing the new Superman is can be distrusted by the reader. That’s the equivalent of a character’s continuing to be somehow fascinated by a speech that utterly bores the reader. Understatement works better, slipping in subtle hints that the heroine we thought we had pegged is blossoming into someone unexpected.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for supporting characters that appear in a number of scenes with your protagonist. What is the supporting character’s original view? As you keep flipping through pages, keep track of your protagonist’s arc. How could the supporting character help us understand the evolution? See if you can insert a dozen reactions that chart the changes.

 “It's a damn good story.  If you have any comments, write them on the back of a check.”
—Erle Stanley Gardner

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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