3.07.2019

My Brother’s Keeper

When I read a manuscript in which the plot is humdrum, the characters complacent, I am moved to ask the author: What is a novel really? In many ways it is an exploration of evil. The protagonist encounters evil opposition and strives to make wrongs right by the end of the book. Luckily for the variety of stories, evil takes many forms, including the besetting sins that a lead character must overcome.

Starting with this conception leads to creating story tension. In any relationship, one partner has designs on the other. For example, a sibling rivalry contains tension because of the competing desires. Even if you want both characters to be basically good, the tension stems from the hidden agendas they have: that is, their deception is evil. When that notion is paired with the commonsense observation that a novel requires exaggeration in order to be interesting, either the deception must be large-scale or the circumstances must be dire. That is why sibling rivalry is more gripping when a parent is on their deathbed. Of course, to my mind a combination of both would work best: a black sheep standing with Abel by their mother’s hospital bed.

That naturally leads to the notion that you can create tension by making one character more honest than the other. If a protagonist is basically good, then that means every other character is more sinful by comparison. Why is the lover, for example, deceiving the hero? Is that deception a major or minor concern in your plotting? What is the secret that the lover is trying to hide? Usually you want a character to work at uncovering evil, because then the discovery is truly earned and thus more satisfying. So you can work both sides of the equation step by step: the lover hiding and the hero gradually finding.

Yet you also don’t want the heroine to be Pollyanna. Usually, the protagonist of a book has evil qualities that she has to overcome. The flaw could be as simple as being impetuous, getting her into trouble. But if she has no flaws, she is dull. Everyone has things they don't like about themselves. That's human nature. We all know we have evil inside us. So why make the heroine so lily white? You as the author will become more interested in the character if you create some flaws for her. So now it becomes a matter of relative evil. Which do you want to feature, and which will dominate the proceedings? In sum, as Dostoevsky knew so well, evil is interesting.

Exercise: Review each scene in the manuscript solely for its evil content. Write down in a sentence the evil act committed. Once you are finished, examine the list with the thought: evil equates to interest. Do you have scenes in which the characters are merely gabbing? Could you bring deception into play that would make the conversations more pointed?

“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.”
—Socrates

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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