Pawns in the Author’s Match

One problem that I encounter frequently with first-time novelists is their patchy use of minor characters. By and large, authors do understand that their protagonist should show up on a regular basis. Yet the supporting characters often are regarded as chess pieces to be moved in order to advance the plot or, worse, an author’s themes. 

This occurs for a variety of reasons. One stems from the organic nature of building a novel. When you first start off, you usually have only a broad idea of how the plot is going to turn out. As the story moves forward, you find that characters you like, or realize you are writing well about, become more important. But others remain on the level of plot functions—they move the plot forward. Sometimes they are better drawn (let’s say, adorned chess pieces) and move the plot forward several times. 

Another reason might be termed the totem character. That person exists in the novel to exemplify a particular thematic point. For example, in a novel about the Vietnam War era, a character might show up, shoot off his big toe in order to escape draft induction, and then drop out of the book. As a reader, how am I supposed to react to that? I do know that people injured themselves in order to avoid being shipped overseas. While vaguely horrified, I feel no emotion toward such a cameo character. 

A third reason originates from an author’s personal background. A common figure from our gloaming past is the bully. She rules her corner of the playground and woe betide anyone she selects for torment. Or, she shames the otherwise engaging heroine in a furtive act, such as smoking dope in high school. The bully can be carried on for hundreds of pages as a brooding malign presence, but if she has no other defining characteristics besides slobbering sadism, is the reader really going to care?

It is your job to assign dramatic weight. If someone is going to commit a significant act, give that job to a major supporting character. That character isn’t a pawn; because you give him regular coverage, he’s a knight. Better yet, align the character with the protagonist.  Have your heroine react to that blown-off toe. Luke, what the hell were you thinking? By the same token, give the bully insecurities. If I know he fears his father, I might want virtue to triumph—for the bully’s own good.  

Exercise: Examine your manuscript with an eye out for distractions. That’s what pawns often are: they distract attention that might be devoted to your protagonist. Could you pull a scattered incident more closely to your main characters? Could you elevate that pawn by providing more coverage before and after the incident so that we get to know that character—and care what happens to her? 

“Without heroes we're all plain people and don't know how far we can go.”             ―Bernard Malamud

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


Keep the Laughs Coming

Satire can make for a wonderful read when placed in capable hands. So many social conventions as well as belief systems are absurd. Yet what starts as a barrel of laughs can be doomed in the long run if an author does not employ a variety of tools to keep the novel’s turns fresh. 

The first is to keep one primary plot aim true. While it’s fun to read about characters taking constant swipes, the story can devolve into a puppet show of tricksters and fools if someone is not staying on the beam. That character may well be the most slashing maverick of them all as long as her cause is meaningful, such as curing malaria. The reader then can keep rooting for justice to be served through all the mayhem.

Second, provide enough plotting so that the novel does not remain on the same starting premise. An arrogant bully can lose swagger if he keeps dissing the same characters about the same topic. A satire about the development of a miracle drug, say, had better move beyond the laboratory and the boardroom, or you’re done in 80 pages. A further stage in this scenario might be a hypochondriac in a trial phase, the head of the FDA review board, a member of Congress agog about the benefits of a side effect, etc. 

A third asset is a large cast of characters. What seems extremely funny when one character takes a beating can start to look like meanness after repeated blows. A hedge fund raider, for instance, can beat up on a hapless CEO only so much before we start wishing the CEO had some redeeming quality. That’s not to mention the repetition factor. Even a running gag needs new circumstances to remain vibrant. If you advance the plot steadily, that will entail adding new characters. You can not only use them in new settings. You can also insert new players into the matrix of old slings and arrows as a way add new variety to what seemed tired.

You might also consider starting with a subplot from the beginning, headed by an absurd character. In the running example being used, this might be a mad scientist working for a second biogenetics company who comes at the malaria issue with a patently quack solution. This personage also provides a break from the main plot, and that is helpful because switching back and forth by itself helps to keep plot lines fresh. That, in essence, is the entire ballgame: keep showing us new tricks.

Exercise: An outline can be valuable before starting a satire. You can lay out the characters in opposition at each stage. Not only that, you can sense from afar when a plot thrust is losing gas. That’s when a new plot line/character needs to be introduced. You can also sketch out how old and new characters can intertwine for new twists on old gags.

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”  —E. B. White

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.


How to Dig

The internet is a boon for any author seeking information about a topic, but the very multiplicity of information sources can lead to hours of wasted research time. A Google entry can call up dozens of websites that contain variants of the same information. That’s because so many online writers are amateur historians or scientists or what have you. How can you dig down deeper to find stuff that really will interest readers?

Not surprisingly, one fruitful method stems from an age-old practice, back when writers would comb through books. At the bottom of an article you will find the footnotes’ sources. This is true of any Wikipedia article, for instance. The writer of that article is likely more of a specialist than you are, and the sources used therefore have more substance. A search for “Five Corners,” a notorious New York City slum of yesteryear, will yield an article wherein one source is the book Five Corners. Within its 441 pages you can find all sorts of information, some of which can occasion new research forays.

While that particular book needs to be purchased or borrowed from the library, there is plenty of other source material that can be found right online. Many older books and journal articles of any age are compiled on scholarly websites such as JSTOR. While some demand a fee to sign up, these prices can be nominal, and many times you don’t have to pay at all. A scholarly journal article may run only 10 pages, but you might find 10 facts that illuminate what you want for your fictional world.

Depending on the age of the books cited, many of them belong in the public domain. That is, anyone can reproduce the book. It’s extremely helpful for all readers that big tech companies have decided they should use that right to make the books available online. The Google Books site has hundreds of books available for free, and the same is true through applications like iBooks. Even books that are still under copyright can be available to read if you merely register for a website.

All of this hunting for books for free bypasses the fruitful avenue of buying used books. After assessing how germane a book is to your subject, you may decide that spending 10 or 15 bucks is a wise investment. You can find nearly new books on sites such as Book Finder and Alibris. I should point out that I’m not dismissing the attractive option of purchasing a new book. If it really interests you, don’t you want it for your library?

Another option, which I’m leaving for last only because it is the most traditional, is using your local libraries. All of them have online catalogues these days, and a number of the websites you’ll find expressly have a box to enter your zip code to find a local library that has your book. You may still spend many happy hours in the stacks even you come to them from your laptop.

“You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” —C. S. Lewis

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved. 

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.