The Linkage That Counts

Authors can have difficulty understanding which characters matter in a novel. This is true especially in stories populated by a large cast of characters, such as a historical novel. As I am editing, I may come upon a scene of a character’s mother who, while the manner of death is mildly entertaining, hasn’t appeared in a hundred pages. So why should I care about this person? The author obviously doesn’t, or she would appear more regularly.

Authors offer up reasons such as: that character thread has to be tied up. Or, her death matters because her son is a major character. Or even, death is a major tool of a novelist. Yet that still begs the question: why should the reader care?

“Thread” may serve as a useful analogy. If you have a scarf with different yarn colors running through it from one end to another, which ones draw your eye? The ones that appear the most often. Those are your major characters. If an occasional olive highlight pops up here and there, that will not change your overall verdict: it is a blue and red scarf with a nice orange in it. If you look closely, you notice the olive flecks. Oh yeah, and the scarf has some of that too.

The thrown-in afterthought is how a reader regards many minor characters. You’re getting no juice from them, because we have no emotions invested in these distant entities. Isolated by itself, a scene covering them mainly is a drain because it pulls our attention away from the characters we are following avidly.

Their importance lies in their linkage to a main character. The mother’s link really is to the son, in terms of the novel’s purposes going forward. The only way her death will matter is if you cover his reaction to her death. And this cannot be some glancing shrug on his way to his next act of derring-do, because then the reader really wonders: why was I bothered with that? The son barely noticed—and I say good riddance too. That’s probably not the reaction you were looking for.

Exercise: When you are creating linkage, the way you arrange the events prior to an event like a death will help focus the reader’s reaction to it. If the character just lost the love of his life, his mother’s death could hit him at a vulnerable point. Or, if his irritation with his overweening father has reached a breaking point, the loss of her as conciliator may sharpen the knives. But notice even here, the death is an augmenting factor, building on an ongoing struggle that you’ve been covering at some length. By itself, the event will not suffice as meaningful catharsis.

“In real life, people are integrated into society. That's what happens in my books as well. Minor characters don't just walk in and spout lines, they interact and have an effect on the events. It's not an isolated universe.”
—Stieg Larsson

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.