9.24.2020

Unexpected Allies

Authors given to writing plot-driven books can face the problem of inadequate characterization. Sure, the murders and explosions keep on coming, but who is the hero so successfully leaping all the hurdles? The personal interactions in such books are purposeful: either action is being planned or executed. While hints of personality emerge in such strongly paced scenes—the luck o’ the Irish detective or no-bullshit woman grunt—the human dynamos may feel mainly like industrious cogs in a machine. 

How can an action-oriented protagonist stand out from the teeming crowd of villain slayers? A hint can be taken from a common motive in such books: the need to revenge the murder of someone near and dear. “You killed my brother!” is personal. Readers like that hero more because they can imagine how they would feel. Yet unless the novel spends all its time looping back through the halcyon days with that brother, the sympathy dies out after a while. There is only so much juice that can be squeezed from someone who is six feet under on page 3.

You can give a hero a personal edge by providing a sidekick of sorts that accompanies the hero throughout the book. The most likely candidate is an intimate other (or who becomes intimate) or a child. The idea is that, even though the hero has to get coffee on the go, they will display personal facets in the exchange of coffee. 

Yet another prime source can be overlooked: a lifelong friendship. If our Irish Mick knew Joshua in the FBI from childhood, all of the interactions between them as they pursue righting the wrong are infused with their buddy-hood. Early on, you write out a few background passages, with maybe a flashback to a telling past episode between them, and now a relationship is established that the reader cares about—even as they slosh their coffee when their target suddenly takes off. 

You can also use ethnic bonds. Since so many action books these days are set in the Middle East, you can span continents in an international thriller. If you have a Jewish FBI agent who spent youthful years traveling to Israel, she could very well be old friends with a Mossad agent. In this age when youths travel frequently overseas, you can set up all sorts of linkages that tie a book together. 

The ease of working with a familiar figure helps to fill out a character. A shy person shows their true warmth when they greet an old friend. A hard-charging avenger shows a comic side when their friend pokes fun at their charging. Plus, if they are united in the quest, the book doesn’t have to slow down for touchy-feely sessions.

Exercise: A real-life model can serve you in good stead with such a character. You can write fluidly about exchanges with a person you know inside-out. You don’t have to explain when you instantly know how that person will react. You use your built-in knowledge to write characters with built-in traits.

“There’s not a word yet for old friends who’ve just met.”  —Jim Henson

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.