All the World’s a Stage

A problem that I encounter frequently in the manuscripts I edit is how one-dimensional the protagonist is. That’s why I was so intrigued when I came across a quote the other day that stopped me short: “He was less of an actor than any man I ever saw.” That remark applies so well to a novel’s lead character. You can add depth to a portrayal simply by focusing on the situation she finds herself in. 

We all have multiple facets in our makeup that we turn off and on at will. I’m not talking about Sybil and her 16 personalities. This observation applies to the way that we assume guises given the situation. You adopt a persona to fit the circumstances. If you’re in a job interview, you’re going to be earnest and likable. If you’re leaving a tedious dinner engagement, you’re going to be cutting and irreverent. Same person but different prompt and different listener.

So why can’t you do that with your characters? You want them to be multilayered, with true-to-life texture. The principal way that Sam, say, operates might be: he’s an enthusiastic extrovert. He likes to champion causes, to be with people, to persuade them of his convictions. Yet who is Sam when he is alone on a Sunday morning? How does he cope with the slings and arrows we all endure? 

When you ask yourself those questions, a different dynamic starts to unfold. Sam might have some deep, dark reasons why he is so affable. If you (1) investigate what they might be for your own knowledge and (2) tell the reader a back story or two, now his confident perch could be much more unsteady. He has to fight to be confident. That deep, dark nature might overthrow the good in him—and then where would the novel be? 

In other words, you create tension within the character, and that makes the reader nervous. We all fear being exposed for the embarrassing things we’ve done. Better yet, the secret things we’re doing right now, the illicit longings that we have, ones even our partner doesn’t know about. The reader can come to worry that the dark side will usurp the confident side. To create a rising character arc, you can show a series of incidents where the dark side is progressively winning. You know how to do that, of course, because you have identified what that other personality is. 

Example: Try an experiment. Go to an airport and watch all of the confident types that strut through the terminal. Better yet, sit down in a food court and watch them while they’re eating and checking out other people. What are they afraid of betraying? When you see a furtive look, jot it down and imagine what the back story behind that look is. Better yet, write down a list of possible reasons and then play out the string on each one. Everyone appears to be so confident—because they’re acting. 

“When a man is wrapped up in himself, he makes a pretty small package.”  —John Ruskin

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


Writing for the Reader

At first, the title of this post seems to mean: Go ahead, sell out. After all, Cyril Connolly made the famous remark: “Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self.” Yet I mean something quite different. I frequently enjoin the writers I edit to consider their readers on a given plot point or character turn, according to its believability or difficulty of comprehension.

It’s common for an author to get caught up in the world that they are devising. Because the detective they have created is offbeat, for example, they feel that the detective can make decisions, often violent ones, that would get him thrown off any sane police force. So I ask: do you think the reader is going to swallow that? 

Or, consider a character that is portrayed as acutely shy. She goes to a town meeting, at which you would expect she won’t make a peep. Yet because the plot calls for someone to challenge the town officials, there she is standing up and yelling at them in impassioned harangues. I like tumult as much as any reader, but not if Sheila has to become schizophrenic.

Ironically, because readers exist outside the book, thinking of them as you’re writing forces you to burrow more deeply inside your book. You don’t miss obvious points of logic when you concentrate enough to imagine how your flamboyant detective is regarded at the station house by his follow-their-nose brethren. If you’re truly writing from inside Sheila’s head, you know that a huge lump would rise in her throat at the very thought of expressing her feelings in a crowd. 

This advice extends all the way down to the individual sentence. If you are torturing your prose in order to seem more literary, for instance, I will highlight an instance and query: “Will a reader understand this?” In many cases the sentence in question uses a few fancy words to mask a very ordinary observation, or its structure is inverted in order to accomplish that same purpose. What is your duty to the reader? To come up with original ideas, told in clear language that wows them with the acuity of your insights.

Exercise: You take on a reader’s role when you are reviewing material during a later pass. You are slightly removed from the original outpouring, particularly if you haven’t read the material for months. Do you, as the reader, understand what you’re writing? If you don’t, be honest with yourself. Tinker with the point, no matter how much configuring in other parts of the manuscript is required, until you know you’ve nailed it down.

“Thank your readers and the critics who praise you, and then ignore them. Write for the most intelligent, wittiest, wisest audience in the universe: Write to please yourself.”  —Harlan Ellison

Copyright @ 2023, John Paine


Talking Down to the Masses

We are swarmed by the Disney culture all around us. Sensual icons of a society that worships adolescence spring out at us at multiple points every day.  Our screens abound with swaggering heroes a moment’s provocation away from mayhem. Amid all these swirls of promises we dare not achieve in real life, I am not surprised when I receive fiction submissions that display a great deal of intelligence shackled to a plot that glorifies our pop leanings. The one aspect flies high. The other, as we all know, is down low.

I don’t believe that literary and mass market books exist in two separate marketplaces. A reader who chooses a schlock book at an airport kiosk may want only light reading in between snoozing on a plane. Yet that same person, once she reaches her vacation destination, digs into the Annie Proulx stories that have  been patiently waiting on her bookshelf. Same reader, capable of enjoying both books. I also believe that in the hands of certain authors, such as John Le CarrĂ©, or certain books, like The Names by Don DeLillo, that a successful blend of the two can be attained.

What I find objectionable is the assumption that pop plot elements can be narrated in an intellectual fashion. Acts of sex and violence have the most force when they are narrated directly. If the narration is contained to a high degree within the lead character’s mind, a certain amount of abstraction is welcome. An ironic point of view can cast a new light on marital sex, for instance. An act of violence told within a matrix of larger causes and effects in the character’s life—how did I end up in this dark alley, anyway?—can provide a new slant on the usual round of punches. The skill required to elevate the narration to this level, however, is well beyond most writers.

The more common linkage stems from an author’s desire to marry high-flown style with common elements that he believes will help the book sell. The writing may have panache, but the narration tends to stray beyond a single enveloping point of view. We jump into the head of a police lieutenant, say, who perforce must continue the same intellectual thoughts—and no police lieutenants have any truck with such nonsense in their profession. Murder or other criminal acts are too serious for abstraction. Even worse, I frequently find that the intelligent author fails to do basic research on such lowly matters as police procedure. Watching the nightly blather on TV is supposed to suffice. 

Schlock novels are written by intelligent people whose aspirations fly only so high. The thoughts of their players rarely rise above quotidian concerns, even when they are revealing character. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. If you  are smarter than the average bear, you probably should approach common concerns from the inside. Flopping over on cue to scriptwriting mode will just lead to a mishmash.

“Only a person with a Best Seller mind can write Best Sellers.” —Aldous Huxley

Copyright @ 2021, John Paine
Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.