Lesson Planner

An author who is interested in history or politics may bring that preference to the novel he is writing. For such an author, starting with research and then inserting it into the story is a natural progression. Yet among the handful of lines that an author should not cross, the most grievous is the one separating storytelling from pedagogy. An author may decide to take it upon himself to teach the reader along the way. Entire pages can be written that are little more than regurgitated history fodder. The material has little to do with the characters inhabiting the novel, and all to do with the author’s yearning to leave the world a more educated place.

This claim to a higher ground can be exacerbated by the author’s desire to use the research to settle political scores. It may seem jarring to find a former president, for instance, held out as a cautionary example to the novel’s occupant of the Oval Office, but that is because the author’s mission extends beyond figments of her imagination. Education and ideology, as any propagandist knows, are easily entwined.

When I discuss such manuscripts with their authors, I usually find that their main concern is creating fuller characters. So their heart is in the right place. The problem they have encountered is that cutting and pasting research is easier than exploring another’s mind. Even easier is spinning out what you’ve wanted for years to tell that damn liberal/conservative bugaboo in your imagination.

The situation might be likened to the enjoyment of a picture book you place on your coffee table. As you view the full-color photos of colonial Virginia mansions, for instance, you imagine what it would be like if you lived back then. Much harder is to imagine what filled the brutish, short lives of the actual inhabitants.

How do you create better characters? You focus on them, first and foremost. You set all the research aside and construct a step-by-step outline of each of your major characters. How are they going to mess with each other? What dirty laundry about each of them are you going to expose? It’s time to get off your high horse and come spill the gossip that you know readers will enjoy.

Exercise: An outline of a character should always draw lines that intersect with other characters. Readers are interested in clashes. Sure, list the person’s main attributes, but then find another character with opposite attributes. Outline a series of scenes in which the two characters interact over one shared goal. It can be a historical goal. But now you’re approaching it from the right direction—bottom up, not top down.

“In order to keep anything cultural, logical, or ideological, you have to reinvent the reality of it.” 
—Ani DiFranco

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.