Avoiding Idle Hands

Before starting a draft, many writers sketch out what attributes they think their characters should have. Once the draft is begun, a common impulse is to dump all of those background notes in one spot. Yet if the notes are broken up into pieces, each piece of information can become active, driving the story forward. The technique has, at the least, the virtue of giving that character something to do as the book goes on.

The character who has outlived her (usually minor) purpose is a problem I see regularly. Let’s assume Darlene is the sister of a murder victim, Annika. You have several paragraphs of background notes that help fill out Annika’s role (her sister’s part in her upbringing). That was the limit of your interest in Darlene—because you know she didn’t do it. Yet she does need to show up several times later in the story. The problem is, the reader may not remember who she is, because she hasn’t done anything since her first appearance.

First, consider how she could link up with other characters. The notes might be broken up so that each piece becomes a source of conflict. If Detective O’Shea, call him that, is investigating the case, Darlene’s background info could become fodder during O’Shea’s questioning of Annika’s nearest and dearest. If Darlene had visited her sister the night of the murder, but at first tells the detective they merely talked on the phone, his finding out that was a lie would cause him to re-interview her. That passive piece of background has been transformed into the basis for a hostile exchange. Darlene has become a source of suspense.

The detective might also find out about another suspicious piece of background. Darlene might have let Annika’s estranged husband come to her house for an entirely innocent reason: to talk to him about Annika’s number one problem with the marriage—his drinking. Yet once she’s murdered, Darlene might neglect to admit the meeting ever happened. After all, he was a belligerent asshole about it anyway. But if Detective O’Shea finds out, he could come running. The exchange might include a nice tension-producing accusation like: “Your brother-in-law was visiting your house the night before the murder because you wanted to scold him about his drinking?”

What has happened is that you have taken passive background information, meant to be dumped in one spot, and broken it into pieces that then can be acted upon. Darlene is not a major character, but she can add some pop to the story along the way. That’s a lot better than being a character that shows up with a chunk of background and then ends up not having a way to contribute to the main plot.

Exercise: Check the background notes you have for a character. Now, rotating from one to the next, run through in your mind how each one of your major characters (do you have five?) might interact with those notes. Do you see any promising friction through this linkage?

“Creativity can solve almost any problem. The creative act, the defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.”
—George Lois

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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