11.06.2018

You Can Know Me by My Friends

I keep track of what’s going on in the books I edit. I create a separate file called “X reading notes,” and I enter a synopsis for every scene plus any comments. At the top of the file I list character names as they are introduced, mainly as a handy source of reference for the editorial letter that follows. Hopefully, as a character gains more prominence, he will be accompanied by family member, such as “w. Maria, s. Samuel, d. Isabella, f. Mort,” as well as friends and acquaintances. Such a grouping tends to single out the leaders of your pack.

In other words, the character list serves a schematic purpose. Like all readers, I enter a novel wondering which characters I should follow. You can set apart your main characters by posting background blocks about them upon first appearance, but you can also employ more seamless ways of setting a character apart. Too often an author starts off a major character within an inward-looking bubble, imitating the experience of the writer all alone at her desk. On the contrary, the people we know in real life have claims on us. So identifying outer parameters can become your best ally. A half dozen women in the novel may have husbands or others, but only Leslie is given the distinction of a sister who plays “Happy” relentlessly. That’s a signal to the reader. Humor is also a good indicator: if Shirley is witty and we can tell she’s best friends with Leslie, we think more of Leslie.

What happens if you have an important character who by structural necessity cannot appear in the early going? That’s when you’re trying to set up your major players, so we have time to get to know them during the course of the book. One simple way to point up such a character is introducing him at the beginning of a chapter. That placement is an announcement of sorts. We’re fresh off a chapter break, and some new person is leading a scene’s charge. He’s receiving quite a lot of attention . . . and now he’s linking up with a character we know is important . . . hey, we should pay attention to that guy too.

Exercise: You know who your important characters are. Take a look at how they are first introduced. Do you have clunky background sections upon their first appearance, making the rest of the book stop for them? Look at those back stories and pick out any characters that might make an impact during the course of the book. Could the former husband still sit in his parked car across the street some nights, for instance? In other words, take what is past and make them put pressure on what’s happening right now.

“Many of the characters are fools and they're always playing tricks on me and treating me badly.”
― Jorge Luis Borges

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


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