The Best Blinders

We live on a planet inhabited by billions of people, but we block out almost all of them as we proceed through our daily lives. So why don’t authors assume their characters do the same thing inside their imaginary worlds? Perhaps the reason is that authors are also creators of the worlds; they have a responsibility to care for all elements of their big garden (of anti-Eden, hopefully). In our real lives, we know the world is composed of massive agglomerations of past human mistakes, and we sensibly ignore as much of it as possible.

The reason for taking this skewed perspective on fiction is to spur a more blindered approach in crafting good characters. An entire world cataclysm may be happening around your chosen lead character, but what is she pursuing? Unless she is Wonder Woman, she is tending to the care of those immediately around her.

Let’s take as an example the terrible hurricane that afflicted Puerto Rico this past year. Are you, as the author, rushing from here to there to capture snippets of all the awful things that high winds and rain can wreak? Or are you focusing on one grandmother’s cottage in your hero’s backyard flattened by a ceiba tree?

Put like that, the answer seems obvious. So why is it that so many novels spend so much time metaphorically rushing from here to there? Everyone knows the warning, “Don’t spread yourself too thin,” but that applies to characters as well. All of the characters are thin because they are only inhabitants of a large construct. As opposed to: they are the only reason for creating the construct.

One person, looking outward at a world that seems determined to mess up her day. That is a useful place to start a novel. In the case of a hurricane, to extend that example, what does the character know about hurricanes before it strikes? Some old tale from the fall of ’39, no doubt, told by her grandmother. Write that scene. Maybe more current news of storms during the age of global warming, related by her husband, who knows incidental facts about everything. How does she react to that, given she realizes her husband is a know-it-all? Of course, anyone who has ever experienced a hurricane knows that it creates havoc beyond your worst imaginings. What pieces of it does she see? How does she deal with those she loves that have been ruined in the aftermath? Now, as a reader, I’m riveted by what’s happening in that little corner of the world.

Exercise: If you find your novel has sprawled outward to cover too many characters and events, stop and count to five. You will allow yourself to cover only five points of view of the events. Now, choose who you like the best. Double the number of his scenes. Pretty soon you’ll be narrating true human drama.

“I'll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you'll come to understand that you're connected with everything.”
—Alan Watts

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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